(cross posted form the Seattle Journalism Commons)
Part two of the #NewsNext series brought to us by the Online News Association/Society of Professional Journalists collaboration featured a lively discussion with Cory Bergman (msnbc.com, breakingnews.com, Next Door Media) and Ben Huh (Cheezburger Networks).
As the owner of the largest humor network in the world, you’ve probably stumbled upon one of his many sites FAIL Blog, Babies Making Faces, There I Fixed It, Engrish Funny The Daily Wh.at, Totally Looks Like either on purpose or by accident through a social network.
Many people in the online news circuit cover Huh for his ability to turn internet memes into a profitable enterprise (his company employs 50 staff and they’re looking for more) and has been consistently topping the Seattle 2.0 startup index for the last year.
Instead of his typical appearance to discuss the secrets behind making something go viral (he says consistency is much more important), this particular room full of people wanted to hear his ideas on keeping journalism strong. Coming out of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in 1999, he never became a reporter, but has been thinking of ways to fix what he sees as a lingering problem in online news.
“The story structure hasn’t changed for hundreds of years…how many times have you read a story and think by the third paragraph didn’t I already read this before?”
Huh believes that we have lost touch with the golden days of journalism where everything was partisan and there were multiple diverse points of views fighting for what they think is right.
But isn’t that what we have now? The second you dip your toe into the cesspool of the online world, you’ll quickly discover bitter accusations and partisan hatchets flying from all directions. There’s no shortage of opinions online, but Huh believes the key to weeding out fact from disinformation is through a network of talented editors. He sees the future of journalism being less about creating content and more about making sure it gets to the right people. That is essentially what has made his business model so successful, it’s his company’s job to get other peoples’ funny images in front of an audience who are looking for a good laugh.
That’s when the inevitable debate about broccoli versus ice cream happened. One person raised her hand and said “if you give people what they want, you’ll end up with cute kittens and sensational stories about Obama being a Muslim” to which Huh quickly replied “but when you don’t give them what they want it doesn’t make a difference.”
I couldn’t help but chime in, and basically piggy backed a different version of the same question, “So what you’re saying is that there’s a way to sexify any piece of news so that people will want to read it, we just need to figure out how?”
I probably didn’t get my point across very well by making up the word “sexify” but Huh pointed to the Daily Show/Stephen Colbert example to show that people can still be informed and entertained at the same time. He admitted that not every thing can be flashy and fun to consume, but there’s still a lot we can do. The world is not dumber because of the internet, he said, the conflict of people saying that Obama is a Muslim when others know different is what drives action, the free market will do its job to correct mistakes.
I personally have trouble swallowing the argument entirely, but I do like the idea of misinformation coming out quickly in the wash, and if Huh can build better tools for us to scrub with, then I applaud the effort. I also appreciated him pulling up a chair afterward to join our discussion.
The heat of the conversation made it tough to get a word in, but under ideal circumstances, I would have shared some examples of investigative work by non-profit outfits like ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity or anyone from the Investigative News Network who puts tremendous work into generating high quality original reporting that is very complex and difficult to digest even after it’s ready to be served to the reader.
A more local example would be this story by By Lee van der Voo of InvestigateWest with the headline “Cruise lines dodge states’ tougher rules by dumping in Canadian water.” Lee did a good job sifting through reports and learning the regulation system to get this story out there, and luckily they raised 100% of their $1,827.00 goal on Spot.Us in order to do so, but it took a lot of time (months I believe) and effort just to produce the story, which is only half the battle.
On my end, I took a chunk of my day to read it and sort through the comments from the Seattle Post Globe, only to come to the conclusion that there’s still a lot I don’t know, and even if I managed to make myself completely well informed, I am not personally in a proper position of power to ensure that the cruise ship industry will be environmentally sustainable for future generations. What I’m saying is that in many cases, quality information doesn’t follow the same rules of supply and demand. This story is an example of a product that takes a lot of energy to produce, and is really only fit for a small number of people who have the power to turn that information into appropriate action.
If Ben Huh’s vision of an internet full of sophisticated editors who love to share good information was thriving today, this story might indeed make it to the right people who could facilitate appropriate action, but who would generate the story? Perhaps someone from the EPA? A Canadian oceanographer? Spot.Us is a great tool, but cannot take the place of the foundation money that helps keep InvestigateWest alive, and I think they still deserve a place at the table.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the #NewsNext series in late June, with a special guest from SEO Moz. Also you can read up on Part 1 here.