buzzfeed

Please allow me to rant for a moment about the state of the media.”

That’s how Mike Hudack, Director of Product at Facebook, begins an epic screed about journalism that calls out both old media giants like CNN and new media upstarts like Vox.

After lobbing the tired (yet valid as ever) complaints against the three cable news giants, Hudack turns his attention to the Web players:

And so we turn to the Internet for our salvation. We could have gotten it in The Huffington Post but we didn’t. We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed’s homepage is like CNN’s but only more so. Listicles of the “28 young couples you know” replace the kidnapped white girl. Same thing, different demographics.

He commends VICE for the “occasional real reporting,” but laments that these “acts of journalistic bravery” have become the exception, not the rule. What makes VICE most unique is the fact that it’s actually willing to devote resources to reporting from conflict areas, which is itself a sad statement on the state of international journalism.

Finally, Hudack sets his sights on Ezra Klein’s new “explanatory journalism” site Vox. While the site covers many serious issues, he is in disbelief that an article about the best way to clean your jeans is more popular than a post about Congress passing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

But through it all, Hudack fails to mention the organization that’s arguably more responsible for this sad state of affairs than any other: His own.

Here I’ll hand it to the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal who argued this point well in the comment thread:

My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.

In Facebook’s defense, it says it’s been tweaking the algorithms to unearth higher quality content for readers. Some contend it’s had a notable effect: The viral monster Upworthy, which has been criticized for hiding low quality content behind irresistible headlines, got crushed after a tweak made in December. But Slate’s Will Oremus throws cold water on this theory, writing that Upworthy changed its editorial priorities around that time to focus on more substantial stories. What’s more, traffic to Upworthy’s ugly stepsister, the equally low-nourishment ViralNova, went up during this period. As far as my own experiences go, I see no fewer Buzzfeed quizzes or viral listicles than ever before on my News Feed. I think I see even more.

There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with Facebook’s algorithm burying those “journalistic acts of bravery” in favor of stories people want to click on. Most non-journalists, if greeted by a News Feed full of measured discussions on domestic and foreign policy or investigative reports that reveal appalling social justice, would run for the hills. And this is where the sad reality for both Facebook and news organizations sets in: Unless you give the readers what they think they want, you won’t get clicks or impressions. And then you won’t get advertising dollars.

This runs counter to Madrigal’s argument that it’s Facebook’s fault. That’s not quite true. It’s advertisers’ fault. Or rather, it’s the fault of a business model that relies primarily on advertising for revenue.

Yes, advertising has always supported journalism, but things are different now. With the old publishing barriers knocked down, the number of places advertisers can stick their brand has exploded, from games to apps to human interest sites to viral YouTube clips, and competition for these ad dollars is fierce. News outlets are just one of many options for advertisers, and news outlets that publish accountability journalism are particularly unattractive.

It reminds me of something NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky said way back in 2009: “The commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.”

Now they have lots of other choices. We can plead with Facebook to put its money where its mouth is and unearth more capital-J Journalism. But a Facebook without quizzes and listicles could alienate its users and therefore diminish its precious ad revenue, so don’t expect Zuckerberg to come to “real journalism”‘s defense anytime soon.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]