All the news that’s fit to click: News in the Age of the Internet

This morning as I buttered toast, my mind flitted to the Huffington Post. Or rather, the day it launched.

I remember the day it launched in 2005. I remember writing about it for a now-defunct blog. I remember discussing it with my nerdy grad school friends who went on to become journalists and Google execs. In our pseudo-intellectual circle it was a definite Thing.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and I can’t pretend we knew what this Thing was going to be or what it would mean, but it did feel significant. And confusing.

I remember reading a Kevin Spacey editorial that morning and thinking — so this is it? Famous people blog now? I thought it was a digital newspaper… (Some hilarious lukewarm reviews from its launch make fine teabreak reading, by the way.)

Now, of course, the HuffPost and its billion-and-growing sub-sites (or verticals, if you’re in the business) are par for the digital discourse. It had 1.2m unique US users in 2009. Two and a half years later, it skyrocketed to 12m users. It’s quoted on book jackets and film posters; it’s won a freaking Pulitzer.

The halcyon days of internet journalism are here, I suppose.

And it got me thinking.

There is a sense of Now in everything online, which syncs perfectly with the world of news. The trends and threads and feeds naturally play into headlines and vice versa. The HuffPost may not always be the world’s best reporting, but it certainly grabs its audience and drives advertising, the two real engines of traditional news.

But the perceived urgency of “Breaking News and Opinion” is only half the story.

This constant immediacy requires something else in the wings. In the world of 24-hour news and headlines about frowning cats, the constant Now struggles with trust.

We’ve come to a point where information is everywhere, but, as always, which information is true and accurate? And arguably as important, which sources can you safely name-drop in your own blogs and dinner party conversations?

This New Now falls into the same traps as life before Internet — despite our seemingly endless thirst for groundbreaking and innovative and “paradigm-shifting”, we want to hear about it from someone we know and like. Someone we trust.

Enter: The Brand. The voice of reason, our go-to resource, our armor against ridicule and cohort in cleverness. I won’t get into graduate level discourse on information brand loyalty and consumption, or theories of built identity and cultural capital. Perhaps another day.

But this human drive for known-quantity resources seems to directly feed into the proliferation of quasi-editorial curated sites on everything under the sun. They are not without merit, interesting viewpoints or talented writers. They cover their beat — be it technology, health, advertising or LGBT rights — with the same zest that pushed Hildy and Walter.

 

Annex - Russell, Rosalind (His Girl Friday)_01

Do your thing. Do it well. The readers will come, the dollars will follow.

Once upon a time, the editorial voice and your politics dictated if you were a New York Journal or New York World reader (and later, a New York Times or New York Post reader). Now, Wired people talk tech differently than say Mashable people. And let’s not get into Fox News vs CNN.

Your wheelhouse (and bookmark menu and app collection) can be point of pride and life-simplifying trust (see also: The Filter Bubble trap), and your consistency rewards the content creators, aggregators and advertisers hungry for your eyeballs.

So my question is, is this really any different? We talk about the death of print and dwindling circulation and the changing landscape of editorial, but aren’t New News Brands like HuffPost entrenching themselves with their readership, building a legacy and identity akin to the print powerhouses of old?

In 100 years will we still read the HuffPost and know it’s editorial narrative the way newsies reminisce about the New York Times columnists of days past?

Following in the footsteps of Hurst seems like the lucrative direction, given our general continued investment in known sources, predictable inputs and reliable content.

And yet.

This maverick digital shakeup, this planet-altering media of egalitarian connectedness, doesn’t it ask for something more? Won’t some new better-designed, specialized content supersede these old models someday? HuffPost was launched nine years ago, who’s to say it’ll still be around nine years from now?

How will commerce continue to shape content, and how will it change?

 

The Gilmore Girls is now streaming on Netflix (a fact which unfathomably made the news all over the place). Yesterday I watched the series finale I’d never seen.

Watching Rory graduate and head off into her perfect dream job as a political journalist a week out of undergrad I couldn’t help but smile. Pre-Recession fairy tales like this feel so much older than they are.

But despite its candy-colored ending, it was prescient. She leaves to cover the campaign trail of Senator Obama in the lead up to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She’s writing for an “online magazine”, hoping to make contacts and gain experience when she can’t land a post at a traditional paper.

When it aired in 2007, did they know what would come of the thundering Yes We Can campaign? The explosion of online journalism since? It’s hard to imagine a break like that wouldn’t become a career defining moment, precipitating the stratospheric accession of Rory Gilmore: Journalist of The Future.

In early 2007, when The Huffington Post did a paltry trade, Obama was some Senator who wrote books and the Gilmore Girls had been cancelled unceremoniously, the world and the Internet were different.

Think how much has changed in these seven years — and how much may change again in the next seven, when it’s *gasp* 2021.

If I had a crystal ball, I’d want to see us keep pushing for innovation and value in our news sources. In better, more integrated outlets for journalism and ideas (with a greater sense of content, integrity and evenhanded discourse).

I’d love it if we could figure out a less sordid model of intellectual commodification and eye-rape advertising.

Frankly, I don’t think we need another Hurst empire or Murdoch scandal, and I’d sure like to see the Rory Gilmore’s of the future give it their all.

I don’t know what the future will hold but I sure hope we do our best, and do better, on both sides of the screen.

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