Sean Parker is right
Sean Parker published a 9,500-word screed on TechCrunch today, defending his redwoods wedding, calling out lazy journalism, and reflecting on the power of myth making. While the piece has predictably elicited a critical response from the “Sean Parker is a douchebag and shall not be forgiven” crowd, it is actually riddled with logic.
Parker is right that his wedding wasn’t as destructive as the media made it out to be. But I don’t care about that.
He’s also right that California’s redwood forests face far greater threats – namely, logging – than any single wedding on a disused camp site. But that’s a discussion for a different forum.
What Parker’s really right about – and what’s most important about this missive – is this:
Rather than basing their reporting on primary source material, the online tabloid press just piled onto the story, sourcing each other, and churning out increasingly sensational and exaggerated headlines as fast as they could type them. I’ve never seen a story get so much play where nearly every reporter did no original reporting.
They literally couldn’t be bothered with it: Hundreds of reporters called exactly zero sources, asked exactly zero questions, did exactly zero research, and even managed to ignore the information contained in readily available public documents. In the fast-and-loose world of “blogging for dollars,” it probably feels like a waste of time to do original reporting when writing snarky stories with a paucity of facts is a more efficient way to generate traffic. Regardless, it was astonishing to see this volume of inaccurate, derivative stories written without any concern for fact checking or sourcing...
The trouble with online media is that there’s no incentive for them to do any of this. It’s easier to generate traffic with snarky stories than hard news, and there’s no downside for getting the facts of a story wrong, or even making it up entirely.
One could easily write off what happened with a blanket criticism of the media: They’ve become link-baiting jackals who believe that “truth” is whatever drives clicks.
Yet this simplistic characterization overlooks the deeper structural changes the media has undergone in recent years, some of which I helped instigate. I have often wondered if we’re better off as a society now that the media has “opened up,” with fewer barriers to entry, less friction, and more voices included in the debate. Have the changes wrought by the Internet (broadly) and social media (narrowly) been helpful to civil society, harmful, or some combination of both?
Regardless, I can’t escape the feeling that there is a kind of cosmic irony at work here... I have spent more than a decade creating products built on the premise that the democratization of media was a good thing, that self-publishing, the free sharing of information, and the removal of the media “gatekeepers” would all lead to a freer, more open media — with the implied assumption that this was a “better” media...
A kind of mob mentality reigns supreme in the unrestricted, uncivilized world of social media: whether it is found on Facebook, on Twitter, in blogs, or even in the remnants of traditional journalism, where the old guard is now forced to compete with the instantaneous news cycle of the “real-time web” and the blogosphere. The economics of this new media have, in so many ways, rendered obsolete the economics of the old journalism and the value system that went along with it...
By the late 1990s the system was beginning to show signs of wear. The loss of revenue from newspaper classified advertising to companies like Craigslist, Monster.com, eBay, and other listings sites was only the first shot across the bow. The massive shift in advertising revenue toward Google, and later Facebook, was the cannon fire that followed. But the real war over journalism was a war of attrition, as the web, blogs, and advertising technology gradually ate away at what remained of journalism...
Many writers, who once would have self-identified as journalists, are now just as happy to be called writers, or even “entertainers.”
At best their job is to produce original content, generating stories in the hope that someone will read and enjoy them. At worst it has become the repackaging of content into the digital drivel known as “click-bait,” the nearly automatic rehashing and regurgitating of nonsense news, contrived to tell whatever seems to be the most sensational story, and repeated endlessly within the “echo chamber” of social media. This new media opines and remarks on everything, contributes precious few objective facts to the debate, and reports on precisely nothing at all. It took a century to establish the economic, social, and legal frameworks that supported journalism. In under a decade those systems have been largely dismantled, abandoned and rendered obsolete.
In those paragraphs, Parker identifies several very disconcerting trends in media, and especially online media. Pageview-driven sites are economically better served by aggregating rather than reporting. For many blogs – and I won’t name them, because I’m occasionally guilty of this too – it’s easier and more effective to simply gather up scraps of other people’s reporting and add a frosting of snark, only to re-serve it as “original” content. There is no economic incentive to do otherwise. Quality original reporting costs a lot of money and often doesn’t lend itself as well to the virality of Twitter or Facebook, where sensationalist headlines and strong opinions often draw the most clicks and subsequently drive up pageviews. The good news on that front is that cost-per-impression advertising is declining in value, so publishers will increasingly be forced to find other ways to monetize that, hopefully, aren't so reliant on massive traffic.
The barrier to entry to media, too, is these days lower, it seems, than in the past, when newspapers and magazines were the dominant outlets for print journalism. Now, it’s less important that you have been trained in the ethics of journalism than it is to know how to start fights on Twitter, or game Reddit, or understand the “social Web.” What are the consequences of that de-emphasizing of journalistic skills? We’re only beginning to find out. This Parker wedding stuff is just a high-profile, tabloid-y illustration of what can happen when reporters don’t do their jobs properly. Hundreds of reporters attacked Parker for his extravagant wedding, which they had already decided was a travesty. And only one asked him for a response to the criticism? That is a giant failure of journalism.
Parker’s reflections on the deleterious effects of the “open media” technologies he helped usher into the world are also thoughtful and honest – but don’t expect him to get any credit for that. Most online commentary I’ve seen in response to his post merely argues that he is a) wrong about everything; and b) still an asshole. But ask yourself: who else in the tech industry has ever suggested that their marvelous inventions might actually be damaging to the society they purport to help?
I don’t want to go on about this, and I don’t want to turn it into a lecture. As I said before, I’ve been guilty of these crimes against journalism as well. You wouldn’t have to look too hard in Pando’s archives to find my transgressions. In fact, the irony is that this very post is a shining example of the “aggregation+spin” model of the worst offenders in the blogosphere. The only defense I can offer is that I am attempting to highlight the worthy arguments in Parker’s post that might otherwise be missed because of the media’s own defensiveness and hubris.
If we're being honest with ourselves, we in the media business have to look at Parker's essay and concede that he has a point. We have to be able to separate our personal feelings about the guy from the substance of what he is saying. If we read his words and still only see "douchebag," we might just be beyond help.