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.