And a song to read by: “Moon Like Sour Candy,” by The Ophelias
Many of you, I imagine, dislike that this newsletter forces you to read so much. “Just send me the link to the article and let me pretend to read it like I do with everything else,” I bet you mutter under your breath as you read.
Instead of doing that though, I’m going to take the advice of Cheryl Sandberg, whose hands are spotless of Facebook’s many crimes and whose conscious I hope is as clear as the fresh-driven snow, and I’m going to lean in. That’s right, instead of exploring a news event in this week’s newsletter, I’m going to explore an entire book. (Just kidding! Just a tiny part of one tiny chapter. It’s manageable!)
The book is Matthew Hindman’s “The Internet Trap,” which I read recently for a class and was absolutely blown away by. Among the many depressing statistics about the impotence of local news in the digital era, one particularly soul-crushing bit of miscellany really stood out.
Before we get to it, take a minute and try to guess: What percentage of total U.S. web traffic do you think goes to news sites?
I asked my parents, and their answers were 50% (mother) and 80% (father). I appreciate that they support my chosen line of work with blind optimism. Some days it is the only thing that keeps me going.
What do you think, though? How often do you visit a news website?
The answer: 3%. A mere 3% of total web traffic goes to news sites. And do you want to really hurt? This next stat is rated XXX and is for freaky readers only.
In Hindman’s words: “Even worse, a huge majority of that audience goes to national news outlets instead of local news organizations. As chapter 6 showed, only about one-sixth of news traffic—half a percent overall—goes to local news sources. With local traffic split between newspaper sites and television stations, local papers are left with just a quarter of a percent of time spent online—only about five minutes per capita per month in web user attention. Local newspaper traffic is just a rounding error on the larger web.”
Yowch. Two big takeaways from this.
First, as I will exhort you until my elegant pianist’s fingers finally snap off like brittle twigs at my laptop, please patronize your local news website. Yes, the website that gives you the news about the city where you are currently living. It’s still there!
And, if you’re feeling like the Earth’s newest billionaire, X Æ A-12 (that’s right, that stupid-named baby’s already richer than everyone you’ll ever know), please subscribe to that news site.
Second, I can hear the pushback already: “Mark, didn’t you literally write a whole fascinating piece about how bad UIs make local news sites practically unreadable? Like the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard unreadable? Like your eyes are somehow nails being rubbed along a chalkboard, that’s also made of nails? And your eyes are for some reason extra sensitive?”
Touché, reader, and thank you for remembering. But, counterpoint: These sites will never improve without your financial support. Subscribe to them for all of the onerous $7 a month they’re asking for, send them an email saying you’d read more if they had fewer obnoxious ads, then watch the ground beneath your feet grow distant as you’re carried by doves into heaven.
Trust me, local news will improve and become more readable and, dare I say, perhaps even one day enjoyable. But not without your support.
There are a dozen other insights like that in Hindman’s book, and, frankly, it should be required reading for anyone using the internet in 2020. Hindman makes a number of salient points about how the architecture of the internet has affected the media industry, but the book could just as well be about the basics of modern internet literacy. It’s well worth a read.
Some good readin'
- Even the millennial-whispering Skimm is not immune to these our most trying times.
- This very, very long New Yorker story won a Pulitzer on Monday, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
- Buzzfeed got a new editor-in-chief, The Wall Street Journal got a new publisher and NBC got a new head of news. All three are men, one is Latino and two of them should be excited.
- I recently discovered that The Big Bend Sentinel, the newspaper covering Marfa and a few other West Texas towns, is gorgeous.
- One reason why thousands of journalists are losing their jobs? Marketers have to protect their brand reputations.
- Newsrooms are shrinking and journalism jobs are disappearing. Except in digital-only newsrooms, where employment has doubled in the last decade.