Balancing Clicks and Substance

I recently took a ten day vacation which I spent traveling through the areas involved in Red Cloud’s War, the Great Sioux War and the wars between the Blackfeet and the early Montana and Wyoming settlers. It gave me plenty to think about and I hope to incorporate some of it somehow into my political blogging, although I am still not sure how best to do this. Before I left, I informed my readers at Booman Tribune that I was “worn down to a nub” by the grind of covering the Trump presidency and wasn’t sure if I should continue my line of work.

While I was gone, I received an outpouring of support and encouragement, including dozens and dozens of donations and a lot of mail (electronic and traditional) explaining why my analysis is valued and I should continue. Looking over that mail correspondence, I was impressed that a recurring theme was that people like my wonkier pieces that explain congressional procedure or go into politics in some depth. This is what I would hope for, except that I have the benefit of looking at actual traffic patterns. And the traffic information tells almost the opposite story, which is that more people read (and, I guess, share) the articles that I write that are more polemical in nature. Overall, my best trafficked pieces this year have come from two categories. Anything I do on the Russia investigation does very well. Other than that, anything I do that adopts a tone of moral outrage and contempt for Republicans will get a reliably good response. Some of my least read articles are ones that took the most time and the most care because they were explaining very difficult concepts and the risk of getting something wrong was quite high.

I try not to be influenced by a chase after traffic, which has been noticed and served as the subject of much of the praise I received. But, honestly, it’s hard to ignore it when you write duds. It’s not too difficult to avoid going back to the well over and over to get easy winnings, but there’s a big disincentive to crafting time-consuming and challenging pieces when similar ones have failed in the past.

So, there’s a certain tension here. What people really value isn’t the same as what they share.

The Russia investigation is an interesting subject in this context. I wrote about it extensively in the winter and spring, but I did it in a pretty detailed and substantive way, so it kind of hit the sweet spot of being analytical and polemical at the same time. But, once Mueller took over the investigation, I basically lost interest in writing about it for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, my immediate goal had been achieved. Mueller either will or will not find prosecutable and/or impeachable offenses, but he won’t be persuaded by me. I also know that he knows infinitely more about the facts than I do, and I kind of reached the end of what I thought I can contribute. I could, of course, create threads for every minor update in the story, but I don’t like to create threads for threads’ sake. Yet, this decision of mine ignores that everything about the Russia investigation is reliable clickbait. People really want to read and talk about it, at least among my audiences.

Reporters and bloggers get a lot of criticism for what they don’t cover, and also for obsessing about certain things and blowing them out of proportion. They take abuse for focusing on the trivial, too. But we all respond to traffic numbers, or in many cases have to justify our jobs and our salaries by our ability to attract eyeballs and advertising revenue. When we spend a lot of time doing something difficult and it just makes us look like we’re bad at our job, then that makes it less attractive to do it again.

Human nature is human nature, and people are going to flock to the prurient and the polemical. They’ll consume the quick and easy more readily than the dense and difficult. But then, many of them will still send donations and letters of praise to the writers who focus more on nutrition than fast food.

I think, one lesson from this for myself is that I need to continue to strike a balance. But for the consumers of news and blogs, I think you have to find a way to let writers and editors and publishers know that brand loyalty can’t be measured just by traffic. Some publications need your financial support which is easy to forget when you’re used to getting what you want for free. But the writers you like most might not be getting the best traffic, and they could benefit from an occasional letter telling their bosses that you like what they do and come to the site to see what they have to say.

The bottom line is that people say that they like oatmeal much more than they actually do. But you know oatmeal is good for you and you want to make sure people keep making it. Substantive political journalism of the kind we aim to produce at the Washington Monthly isn’t lucrative and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

After taking a break and digesting all the positive feedback I received, it’s more clear to me than ever that if I have a real purpose in doing what I do, it’s definitely not in creating more chaff than wheat. The challenge is to keep true to that without doing a lousy job of attracting an audience.

1 comment for “Balancing Clicks and Substance

  1. August 24, 2017 at 10:07 pm

    The substance builds credibility capital. This allows you to clickbait often enough (hopefully) to pay some bills.

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