News websites are getting more traffic with novelty posts than serious journalism--and that's fine.
After Sunday’s Oscars, when John Travolta somehow arranged the phonemes of Idina Menzel’s name into “Adele Dazeem,” Slate whipped up the ingenious “Adele Dazeem Name Generator,” which invited readers to “Travoltify” their names with custom mispronunciations. It quickly became the most popular post Slate had ever done–yes, even more than thinkpieces on Jonathan Livingston Seagull!–leading Slate editor David Plotz to tweet that the coup made him feel “ambivalence.” He later clarified to Nieman Journalism Lab:
Ambivalence is not quite the right feeling. Maybe bemusement. The Travolta name generator is a delightful piece of work that brings pleasure to millions — literally millions — of readers… On the other hand, I have to giggle that this project is attracting millions of readers, and crushing stories about Ukraine or Obama under its boot.
But there’s no need to be ambivalent or even bemused–certainly, not embarrassed. News outlets have been in the business of entertainment and games for ages. Once it was crosswords and comic strips, Daily Jumbles and Wingo giveaways. Readers took the paper at least partly for them or–more than journalists’ egos might care to admit–mostly for them. But without real-time traffic dashboards, we could more easily tell ourselves readers came for the five-part investigations on tax policy.
The differences now is 1) that, online, the fun bits are “Which ____ are you?” quizzes and gif listicles and name generators. (Disclosure: Time.com has done enough popular interactive state maps and marriage-date predictors for me to have a conflict here.) And 2) we now know with statistical precision how many more people are coming for the fun stuff than the deeply reported, deeply thought-through pieces we sweat over and submit for awards.
That’s fine. Pleasure is not a sin. It’s OK to go online for both fun and information, and–in a rough business climate for media–news outlets would be stupid not to try to supply both. It’s fine, anyway, as long as they remember that we’re not only in the business of eyeballs. I’m a TV critic, so I’ve written enough high-traffic posts that caught a Google Trending Topics wave to know that traffic and depth aren’t always correlated; there were points this past year that you could slap “Duck Dynasty” or “Lena Dunham” on your grocery list and it would get a million clicks. But I also write posts on topics I know only a few weirdos like me will care about (like the one you’re reading now, probably), because that’s part of the reason I write for a living in the first place.
Slate publishes plenty of pieces that may never get Travolta traffic but are worth doing and supporting. (That Jonathan Livingston Seagull essay, for instance, is terrific.) If money and traffic pressures lead editors and publisher to reward and demand nothing but viral posts, that’s something to worry about. But journalism will be fine as long as we don’t start ordering their staff to start making more name generators, dammit, and the hell with Ukraine and Obama.
That said, would it kill you to make me a Ukraine-Obama name generator?