Is the State of the News Industry “Pathetic”?

    May 7, 2011
    Chris Crum

Mashable founder Pete Cashmore tweeted that Monday was the biggest traffic day ever for the publication (in terms of unique visitors. Clearly, it stands to reason that the death of Osama bin Laden and the site’s tendency to show up high in Google search results played a role in this.

If you look at Mashable’s topic page for Osama bin Laden, it currently contains 33 stories (probably far less than a lot of publications). Is this really a problem?

Is Mashable’s (and many other publications’) strategy justified? Tell us what you think.

The angles of these articles include:

– a webinar
– tv ratings
– tweet-by-tweet infographic
– Will Ferrell doing a sketch
– bin Laden searches
– bin Laden memes
– NFL star tweets
– altered MLK Jr. quote going viral
– PCs/Thumb drives captured
– how the social web reflected upon the death
– YouTube video
– Situation room images released
– Obama/Osama gaffes in the media
– yahoo searches spiked
– record tweets per hour

The list goes on. You can see them all here.

Here’s Cashmore’s tweet:

Monday was Mashable’s biggest traffic day EVER in terms of unique visitors. CONGRATS @mashable team!! 21 hours ago via web · powered by @socialditto

Tech blog TechCrunch, which is owned by AOL, and is now under the broad net of the Huffington Post Media Group, is no stranger to criticizing blogging peers, and while not on TechCrunch itself, one of the publication’s writers took to his personal blog to call Mashable’s approach “pathetic”. MG Siegler writes:

Imagine that, you write 35 200-word posts featuring the words “Bin Laden” in the headline and they pull in traffic on the day it’s one of the most searched terms ever. 

Were any of those stories really about technology? A few, maybe. But none were given the actual attention that a story of such magnitude deserves. It was a pure traffic/SEO play.

This is the state of tech blogging these days. It’s shifting more towards a mixture of quick-posted nonsense and pure SEO plays.

I (along with many others) can certainly see Siegler’s point (and for the record, I think he does a lot of good reporting), but I also think there are some flaws to it. For one, as some others have pointed out, TechCrunch has had its share of posts that could be seen in the same way (even bin Laden-related). That’s fine. That’s their choice.

TechCrunch covering bin Laden

Maybe they don’t do it to the extent that Mashable does, but they do it. It’s about covering hot topics. People search for hot topics. They’re hot because people are thirsty for information about them. Why is it bad if a publication wants to provide information people are seeking to their own readers?

We’ve also covered some of the same storylines from the above Mashable list.

If the issue is that the posts are too short, I’ve also seen plenty of very short posts from both TechCrunch and the Huffington Post. Sometimes posts don’t need to be long to get the point across. Sometimes readers don’t want a long post. Sometimes it’s enough to point the reader to the source. They want the heart of the story and then want to move on. We’re living in an age where there is simply too much information coming from all angles, and less time to consume it all.

Doesn’t the Huffington Post owe a great deal of its own success to this kind of coverage?

It’s also about growth. Why should a publication not seek to expand its audience? Clearly, this works to do so, as Cashmore’s tweet indicates.

If Google had a problem with this, it wouldn’t have Google Trends. It wouldn’t have given sites like Mashable and The Huffington Post boosts in search visibility with the Panda update. Cashmore told WebProNews directly, Mashable’s Google traffic is “holding strong.”

Search trends indicate demand for information. Why can’t a publication give its own readers such information, while seeking to expand that amount of readers in the process? If readers don’t like what they see, they’ll leave, and if they come back often enough and never like what they see, they’ll never come back. They might even block the domain from their search results. That’s not good for search.

Any publication engaging in this kind of coverage, has to keep their core audience in mind, and still deliver on that. As long as they’re delivering on that, and not taking credit away from sources that deserve it, it seems like a legitimate practice to me. If the publication doesn’t deliver what its audience wants, it will stop having an audience. That goes more so on the web than on TV for example.

Yesterday, I saw a headline scroll across the bottom of CNN about Jennifer Love-Hewitt breaking up with her boyfriend. This was FOLLOWED by a story about aid to victims of the tornadoes in the south. Clearly this is about more than just search. CNN, the TV station isn’t getting search engine traffic on this kind of stuff.

Mashable has grown into a mainstream news source, despite its largely social media angle. A lot of people spend a lot of time looking at content there. Why should they not be informed of certain things while they’re already on Mashable. Or already on Facebook (seeing a Mashable update in their news feed)? Sometimes it’s not about breaking the news, as much as letting your audience know that the news (which a lot of people care about) has been broken.

By the way, this is a strategy that has been in place for years (outside of the search factor) even in print. Think sports coverage in the Wall Street Journal.

Another point is that new media publications like a Mashable or a TechCrunch or a WebProNews might bring a different perspective to the table than the traditional media.

If it’s about reporting only when you’re on the scene, nobody was on the scene in the case of Osama. Every publication traditional or new media was regurgitating the information that was made available by the White House to one extent or another.

Mashable has not stopped delivering on the kind of content that helped get it to where it’s at today. It’s just expanded. If you only want tech news from Mashable, they have a section for that. They even have a feature that lets you follow specific topics.

Look at BuisnessInsider, which TechCrunch seems to let syndicate its own articles sometimes. It’s in a very similar boat, if not to a much greater extent. I don’t think it’s hurting that site either.

There are numerous ways for people to consume the content they want. Cashmore himself said at SXSW last year, “People need to become more educated consumers of news.” That’s the truth.

If a publication wants to expand its coverage, it has the right to do so, and its readers can make up their minds whether or not they want to read.

Siegler says, “Welcome to the sad state of our industry.” Is it sad, or is important (or at least trending) information simply more accessible because of the growing number of publications covering it (many with unique angles or voices to bring to the equation)?

Readers have more choices than they’ve ever had. Are they all great? No, but can’t you make that choice yourself?

Do you think the news industry is in a sad state or in a better state than it’s ever been? Let us know in the comments.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.