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Super Size Media

Morgan Spurlock in a promotional image for Super Size Me (2004)

Have you ever wondered why so much news output is junk?

It’s because of the big board.

As journalist Mic Wright explains, the big board was popularised by Nick Denton of Gawker media. It’s a big screen that everybody in the newsroom can see, and it shows you in real time which stories are getting the most attention.

What Gawker did a decade ago is commonplace in newsrooms now, because most media outlets have become dependent on traffic-based advertising revenue. As a result every significant media outlet pays close attention to its traffic: “which reporters/writers/columnists are killing it and whose stuff is absolutely eating dirt,” as Wright puts it.

And sadly, it’s usually the lowest-quality content that’s killing it.  You can see that for yourself: while media outlets don’t let you see their big board, many of them do show you what content is the most read (and often, most shared and/or most commented on).

In 2011, Nick Denton explained that this system worked really well for everything but “the worthy topics”: “Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor [do advertisers] want to pay to encourage people to eat their vegetables.”

He was right, and the food comparison is a good one: many of us would much rather eat Big Macs than broccoli, and the stats show that we are similarly drawn to unhealthy news output: the dogwhistling columnists, the manufactured outrage, the reinforcement of prejudice, idiocy rather than analysis.

But the downside is the same too. As Morgan Spurlock demonstrated in Super Size Me just before the big board became a newsroom staple, there are terrible consequences to consuming a diet made mainly of junk.