If Media Companies Are Getting Dumber, Who’s To Blame?

A product manager at Facebook thinks the Fourth Estate has been “hollowed out” by brainless content. Can anyone fix the epidemic? Should they?

If Media Companies Are Getting Dumber, Who’s To Blame?
[Image: Flickr user Daniel Novta]

Today’s discussion: Facebook product manager (and former CEO of Mike Hudack thinks the media has hit a quality nadir. “It’s hard to tell who’s to blame,” he writes. “But someone should fix this shit.” Who is to blame? And who is going to fix this shit?


The writers at sites like BuzzFeed aren’t lazy–they’re just following orders. The heads of new media sites (including this one) are targeting the new generation of readers–people they call SYBAWs. That stands for Smart, Young, Bored At Work. As Jay Lauf, publisher of Quartz, told a conference last year, “If you aren’t attracting SYBAWS, you are dead as media.”

SYBAWs are people who look at their smartphones instead of doing, you know, work while at work. SYBAWs are a generation of todays teens and twentysomething that have the attention span of a fruit fly. These are people that can finish university without ever taking the time to read a book while there, so of course they think a webpage with 36 pictures and a few words is an “article.”

The question is are the SYBAWs failing us or are the media failing them? In a perfect world I would say it’s up to the media to stop pandering to SYBAWs and show them just how much is to be gained by reading actual journalism. But of course this world of new media is so afraid to change anything that can cost them clicks. So who is failing who? It’s a lot of both. – Michael Grothaus

The problem is threefold. First is diminishing attention spans. Second is a corporate infrastructure that demands page views and likes. And the third: a natural shift toward social rather than traditional media consumption. The problem is him, and you, and me, and everyone. News needs help, sure, but that’s why companies like Uncoverage are popping up. More visibility for voices without ties–that is one solution. However, to say hard news and honest, thorough reporting are all but dead? It’s an affront to those who have chosen and who excel at this discipline. – Leah Hunter

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I don’t think many people would disagree with Hudack. The obvious irony is that every commenter is quick to call Facebook the problem and censure Hudack for using Facebook as his medium for this discussion–and yet there they are, all writing paragraph-long responses on the exact same medium. Instead of lamenting it endlessly, we should be trying to play this new game by the new rules. I hate listicles, but if a Crimea-related listicle prevents someone from thinking Crimea is a new STD, then that’s an improvement. The bottom line is that as journalists, our job is to inform and educate and make people aware of the world. You can only change people so much, and in this age of easiness and speed, we’re just gonna have to meet them halfway. – Emma Holland

Hudack’s opinion about journalism is not one the public should consider, because he doesn’t know what “journalism” means. He is not a practicing journalist, nor does he contribute to any journalistic venture. A real journalist knows that any story she produces should serve the public in some way. It doesn’t matter how small–like Vox’s Levi’s story–or big the story is; as long as it gives the reader useful information she did not know before, it’s kosher. Besides, Hudack’s argument falls apart when one considers that he works for an outlet that uses hype-seeking algorithms to pick out what news its users see on their feeds. As an ad guy, he knows that the number of clicks a link gets directly correlates to how much money the creator gets. For him, more clicks means the more happy his ad clients are. Hudack’s personal diatribe’s only true effect is that it discredits his ability to represent himself and his employer. – Tina Amirtha


The media isn’t to blame because there isn’t a problem in the first place. Mike Hudack’s media rant seems to be merely an observation of globalization in progress. I mean, what was supposed to happen when billions of people gained access to publication tools and an expanding audience? Of course content and the media would be swallowed up in the process. All that’s happened is that we’ve crossed the point at which “real news” is not the most popular content and that seems to bother some people. What’s most popular is rarely the “best” in most of our opinions anyway.

The problem with the media isn’t a problem–as long as there are still some people digging into the issues and doing solid reporting on the facts. There will be a course correction at some point; the unofficial motto of the Internet is, of course, “where anything can be found.” People who want the real news, rather than reading about freezing jeans, will find it. Or they’ll go out and create it. – Tyler Hayes

Mike, you keep using that word… The use of the word “media” to refer to “journalism as a whole” is a lazy, reductive, and problematic. In his post, Hudack summarily bemoans broadcast, print, web, and magazine journalism, conflating them all. Yes, CNN has big problems, but those problems are best examined within the context of the 24-hour news cycle. Yes, young Americans get their news from The Daily Show–but why is that a bad thing? After all, a cartoonist helped bring down Tammany Hall.

Even more perplexing is Hudack’s indictment of leading national newspapers. He claims they are incapable of “breaking real, meaningful news at Internet speed,” and seems to imply that they merely parrot sources like Edward Snowden. He seems to have not visited any newspaper’s front page–it took me two seconds to find careful analysis of Snowden’s leaks. Maybe he doesn’t have access to the paywall? Also, I’d reconsider putting Vice on a pedestal. – Joshua Rivera

Things aren’t helped by a 24-hour news cycle, pushed into overdrive by the possibilities (and demands) of real-time reportage via social media. But for every 10 “newz sites” less concerned with telling good stories than with providing a constant stream of content generation, we see one example of a prominent original voice that might not have previously been given a forum.

Does the gain offset the loss? I’m not sure, but it does mean that you can’t offer a blanket damnation of what the Internet has done for journalism. So what’s the answer? Better discovery tools in my opinion. As with music, it’s too lazy to say there’s no longer good stuff being produced–you just need to know where to find it. Apps which allow you to pick one or two news topics of interest and just follow these don’t do anyone any favors in the long run. Nor does the hits-based “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality to content, which prizes fast food sensationalism over balanced journalism. – Luke Dormehl