Quick book review: It’s not news, it’s Fark.com

Drew Curtis, overlord of Fark.com – probably my favourite site on the entire internet – has written a book about “how the mass media tries to pass off crap as news”. He’s right, it does, and the book does a superb (and superbly funny) job of identifying and skewering the various ways in which they do it.

Bravely, Curtis also tries to offer advice to mass media – and for me, that’s where things come unstuck. As Curtis rightly points out, not-news (such as stories about people doing stupid things with their penises, or Paris Hilton doing things with penises, or what Michael Jackson allegedly did with his penis) draws audiences. Curtis’s suggestion is that mass media splits the news and not-news into two different sections, so those of us who want proper news can get it, while those of us who want skateboarding dogs can get that too. And never the twain shall meet.

It’s a nice idea, but I really don’t see it – and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one outlet he commends for resisting consultants’ suggestion that they redesign their site as a MySpace-a-like to court bored teens, a move guaranteed to alienate the grown-ups, is the BBC. Unlike pretty much every other media outlet on the planet, of course, the BBC isn’t funded by advertising.

For Curtis’s prescription to work, mass media outlets would need more than just a news and not-news section; they’d need publishers to keep the unprofitable news bit alive instead of dumping it and concentrating on the lucrative skateboarding dogs and penis accident stuff. And that’s the bit I have a hard time imagining. Just look at your local paper: if it’s anything like mine (and thanks to consolidation in the local news industry, it almost certainly is) they dumped expensive things like journalists a long time ago.

That said, Curtis makes some superb points throughout the book (particularly on the relationship between blogs and local newspapers, or YouTube and local TV), and probably the best one is about internet advertising. We’re told again and again that internet advertising doesn’t work – but what if it’s not internet advertising, but *all* advertising?

What if it’s not that internet advertising is any different, but that the whole advertising business is built on a giant pile of bullshit, and that it’s only since we stuck it on the internet that we’ve been able to see just how much bullshit the creatives and ad salespeople have been shovelling?

And that’s the interesting thing, because of course pretty much the entire internet seems to be pinning its hopes on advertising revenue. If Curtis’s own experience is correct (he was promised 4% conversion rates from display ads; the reality seems to be 0.2%, on a good day, if the planetary alignment is favourable and you’ve got a lucky rabbit’s foot) then an awful lot of people are fighting for shares of an advertising pie that’s 20 times smaller than they thought it was.

That’s good news for Google; not so good for the sites depending on ad income.

If I’m making it sound as if the book’s a dull “whither media?” treatise, I’m doing it a disservice. While there’s serious stuff in there if you want it, the book itself is more of a romp through media scaremongering, stupidity and other things beginning with S. It’s a hoot, and well worth buying.

Disclaimer 1: I’m still operating on sod-all sleep, so the above may not make any sense at all.

Disclaimer 2: Drew Curtis is a friend of .net magazine; I write for .net, so therefore there’s a mild conflict of interest here. That said, as far as I’m aware Drew would set the dogs on me if I turned up at his house demanding beer.

15 thoughts on “Quick book review: It’s not news, it’s Fark.com

  1. Tim Worstall says:

    “Curtis’s suggestion is that mass media splits the news and not-news into two different sections, so those of us who want proper news can get it, while those of us who want skateboarding dogs can get that too. And never the twain shall meet.

    It’s a nice idea, but I really don’t see it”

    ?? !! ??

    Errm, don’t we already do that?

    Tabloids and Broadsheets?

  2. Gary says:

    Yeah, he uses that as an example. The bit I’m not sure about is the publisher keeping the broadsheet going when the money’s in the tabloid. Why bother, other than maybe ego?

  3. Gary says:

    I mean tabloid vs broadsheet internet sites, btw. I guess the key would be – if you can command huge ad fees for the supposed quality audience.

  4. tm says:

    >Why bother, other than maybe ego?

    But looking back at it – isn’t that exactly the reason why a great many very rich men have bought/started/maintained newspapers? Ego and influence?

    This still applies to the web site version of the newspapers surely?

  5. Gary says:

    Good question. I don’t know :)

    I’ll cheerfully admit that the post is a bit tired and confused, but what I’m getting at I think is that the few organisations that do balance populist and serious tend to have other sources of funding than advertising – so the beeb has the licence fee, the Guardian is a trust, etc. Whereas other organisations end up with an unhappy marriage of serious and celeb/stupid, such as CNN.

  6. Squander Two says:

    “The news” is what people are interested in. It’s been around a lot longer than the press. It’s all the information that is deemed worth passing on, and has always been a mix of “A new king has just overthrown Harald at Hastings” and “Doreen’s son-in-law has got the gout” and “The old oak by the mere was struck by lightning last week and now it looks like Jesus”.

    We’ve just been through a relatively brief period when “the news” was redefined by those who operated the printing press and later other media with their own prioritisation of what was truly important and what wasn’t really. But that prioritisation only ever matched that of some of the public, while lots of — possibly most — people went on thinking of “the news” as they always had. There’s a strong argument that what we’re seeing now isn’t the dilution or degradation of “true” news with irrelevant crap, but the media being forced through democratisation to report what has always been the news and to abandon their own definition of it that they were only able to force on the public while they had a technological monopoly.

    Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily an improvement.

  7. Tim Worstall says:

    “The bit I’m not sure about is the publisher keeping the broadsheet going when the money’s in the tabloid. Why bother, other than maybe ego?”

    But thank the Lord they do says someone who has been known to freelance for The Times, which has lost money for decades, supported by The Sun.

    As to website, well, same thing really. OK, this is trivial, but I could make a living out of my Tabloid Edition site, certainly couldn’t out of the one that’s interesting to write, the newer one. So it’s a mixture of the same things. One for cash, the other for ego, self-gratification and so on.

  8. Gary says:

    “The news” is what people are interested in. It’s been around a lot longer than the press.

    Good point.

    But thank the Lord they do says someone who has been known to freelance for The Times, which has lost money for decades, supported by The Sun.

    Do you think it’s a power thing, ie the loss making but prestigious title is kept running because it gives the proprietor political clout and/or respectability?

  9. Squander Two says:

    Yes, they did, and, now you mention it…

    > As Curtis rightly points out, not-news (such as stories about people doing stupid things with their penises, or Paris Hilton doing things with penises, or what Michael Jackson allegedly did with his penis) draws audiences.

    Why is Jackson in that list? The first two would be consensual, so an interest in them is merely puerile voyeurism and gossiping. Whether or not Jackson did what he is alleged to have done is big important news by any sensible measure: rape, abuse of power, corruption, bribery, and paedophilia if he did do it and blackmail and slander if he didn’t. And if he didn’t do any of it, then there’s still an important and I think newsworthy lesson to be learnt about the dangers of extreme naivety and the importance of public perception.

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