A crotchety man took to Facebook Thursday afternoon to complain about the "state of media" today, arguing modern journalism has abandoned real reporting in favor of clickbait headlines and insubstantial listicles only meant to garner traffic.
The rant wouldn't be terribly interesting, if it weren't for the man who wrote it: Mike Hudack, director of product at Facebook. Facebook, if you recall, is the super-popular website that rewards the clickbait he so laments.
Though his rant is aimed more squarely at Ezra Klein's new venture, Vox, and this article about washing jeans, Hudack also included potshots at BuzzFeed, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, "Meet the Press" and, yes, The Huffington Post in his screed.
You can read his entire argument here:
But here's the thing: It isn't hard to tell who holds the power to fix modern journalism! Hudack has direct access to him. It's his boss, Mark Zuckerberg.
The first point to make is that, obviously, good, deep reporting exists on the web, even if publications aren't producing "enough" of it, according to Hudack's standards. And if they aren't, it's because news publications, hit hard by the loss of ad revenue from traditional print, need enough money to sustain their business and pay employees.
Enter Facebook, which over the past two years has very, very deliberately tried to become the biggest traffic-getter for news websites. Facebook's algorithm blesses certain types of articles with a cascading effect: If it gets "Likes" and "Shares," it's shown to more and more people, in turn getting more and more "Likes" and "Shares."
It just so happens that "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity" and its ilk get the most "Likes" and "Shares."
Facebook has said it's trying to rejigger its algorithm to favor "high-quality content," in the words of one of Hudack's colleague, Lars Backstrom. Whether or not that's working is up for debate. But if Facebook wants "good" journalism, it can encourage it by building a computer program that relies less on whether or not a a few people were in the mood to click a thumbs-up button.
There is definitely one way not to encourage better journalism: Ranting online about a problem a company you work for helped cause.
Alexis Madrigal, another journalist at The Atlantic, put this whole counter-argument even better in two comments under Hudack's original Facebook post.
Hey, Mike, I just sent you a tweetstorm, but let me reproduce it here: My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I'm not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they'd say, "They work on Facebook." And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don't have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook's social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.
And we (speaking for ALL THE MEDIA) would love to talk with Facebook about how we can do more substantive stuff and be rewarded. We really would. It's all we ever talk about when we get together for beers and to complain about our industry and careers.