Pageview journalism is killing us
First things first: Complex Magazine's list of the "40 Hottest Women in Tech" is horribly sexist. Yes, it acknowledges the non-sexy accomplishments of many of these women. And yes, "hot" can mean a lot of things. Airbnb is "hot" right now. Enterprise startups are "sexy." But Airbnb did not "gain exposure when a modeling photo of her licking the Sony PSP appeared online in 2005," like G4 host Jessica Chobot (#33 on the list).
Does Complex Mag really think "women in tech" are little more than sex objects? Probably not. Are they simply giving audiences (read: teenage-and-20-something males) want they want? Maybe. Complex Mag has bills to pay like the rest of us struggling to make it in media, so what's one link-baity article between friends? Should we forgive them for writing a piece of shit article that seeks to capitalize on men's fear and insecurity of successful women by reducing them to pin-up models? Obviously no, we should not forgive them.
Sexism in tech is a serious issue, and writers like Sarah Lacy have written eloquent pieces about it elsewhere on our site. But there's a larger truth about journalism-today within that Maura Johnston Tweet that extends beyond sexism and gender-troll pieces. When journalism is funded by ad dollars, which in turn is funded by clicks, journalists have little incentive to challenge the biases and long-held views of readers. Instead they play to readers' fears. (There is a flipside to this: they also play to readers' sense of goodness, as we see in some of Buzzfeed's best listicles). We can talk about the closing of foreign bureaus, and the decline of factchecking, and these are all really horrible consequences of the upheaval taking place in media today. But if journalists and media organizations stop challenging their readers, ashamed to publish anything because it might not get enough clicks, then that's when we might as well pack it in, folks, because we're done here.
Luke Winkie, the progenitor of this monstrosity, wrote a response to the Internet fervor that erupted today that tells us a lot about the pageview industrial Complex:
I was assigned to write the 50 Hottest Women in Tech by Complex and it really bummed me out, because the idea of perpetrating the same old gender divisions in an area like tech - which has predominantly been a boy's club throughout history - seemed like kind of a messed up thing to do. It represents the most banal form of internet content that exists. But it's hard to say no to a paycheck.
"So what I tried to do was see if it was possible to make something called "The 50 Hottest Women in Tech" earnest and empowering and an actual good thing. I pretty much only included normal looking women, who were involved in something really crucial or exciting in the tech space. I made no allusions to their looks in the blurbs, and ended up with simply a long list of very exciting women.
"Of course when the piece actually ran, I discovered that over half of the women I had included were replaced with people like Morgan Webb, complete with the usual lascivious dialogue. Sigh. It's hard to win when you're writing for Complex, but please know that I tried. Look, Winkie probably should've known that Complex wouldn't let a post called "40 Hottest Women in Tech" go un-Maxim-ified. (Also what is "normal looking women" supposed to mean?) But I don't want to pile on Winkie. There was a time when I might've written something like this for a paycheck (like at 22 when I was fired from Johnny Rocket's). And it saddens me that some of the biggest victims of clickbait journalism are the young writers whose posts are mutilated by pageview-eager editors. But regardless of how "earnest" and "empowering" Winkie's original list may or may not have been, Complex clearly felt it wasn't sufficiently pageview-friendly. So Complex threw some bikini-clad G4 hosts in the mix and voila: a certain subset of men are captivated, and a certain subset of decent human beings are outraged. Pageview gold.
But is it really as hopeless as Johnston suggests? Earlier this month, journalism.co.uk published a list of "50 female innovators in digital journalism." No photos, just names and accomplishments. It was shared 633 times, which might be small potatoes by some standards, but it did so without a hint of sexism or dickishness.
Yet there is reason for alarm. In response to haters of the pageview-driven Bleacher Report, founder and PandoDaily contributor Bryan Goldberg writes, "One day the large media companies of the world will use the profits from the higher-margin, mass-appeal publications to supplement the lower-margin efforts of investigative and 'narrative' journalists."
That's a really nice thought, and perhaps Goldberg will fight for this vision of journalism's future with his next content company. That said, baldly sexist clickbait like Complex's gallery is never excusable. And even if we trust the big pageview machines of tomorrow to also fund great journalism, when they're pushing out so much pandering clickbait that perfectly appeals to our hopes and fears, who will bother to read the challenging stuff?
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]