Curious Rat



'Perspective' On Web Journalism →

Matt Alexander of One37.net has a good interview up at Cris Colocho's site, technoticRaccoon. I agree with a portion of what Matt says regarding the current state of journalism and blogging. However, there's a good chunk of it I oppose:

Honestly, I think the reviewers at The Verge are doing a fantastic job. In fact, if there’s one thing worth paying attention to there, it’d be the quality of their reviews and all of the media embellishments therein.

The media embellishments, such as the video components and photographs, are second to none. I'd argue The Verge has the best video reviews of any site on the Web. But the text portion of the reviews leave much to be desired.

For example, here's a passage from David Pierce's review of the Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ (emphasis mine):

Barnes & Noble seems to have figured out how to compete with the iPad: build a light, nice-looking tablet with a great screen, offer a bunch of different ways to watch and read things, and charge a reasonable amount for it. $269 for a 9-inch tablet is a great deal, and if you want a Netflix and Hulu machine this is a pretty good one — as long as you're happy using headphones all the time. But Barnes & Noble shoots itself in the foot over and over, with a slow and bug-riddled interface that is often infuriating to use. I waited a full minute for it to switch accounts at one point, and several minutes to load a game — that's not acceptable.

In conclusion, the Nook HD+ is perfectly capable of competing with the iPad, except its slow and shoddy performance is unacceptable. Well, which is it?

This represents an unfortunate pattern regarding reviews on The Verge: Many gadgets that fall in a certain range of 5.5-8.0 (also arbitrarily calculated), are never summed up as either buy-worthy or avoidable. This is due in part to a rather subjective and meaningless point system where various aspects of a device (performance, design, display, etc) are graded on a scale of one to ten.

Two problems arise from such a system:

  1. It's reasonable to assume many visitors aren't going to read the full reviews. They're going to skip to the end, read the score and the "pros" vs. "cons" bullet points and base their buying decisions on whatever conclusion they've drawn from those two sections of the page.
  2. One could argue any device that falls within the range stated above would be "good enough" to buy. Anything over a five is "above average" and therefore might not be so bad, but it's up to the reviewer to say flat-out whether something is worth buying. Does the device do what it's supposed to do better than its competitor's product? No? Then avoid it and buy the from the competitor. That's the kind of conclusion I want to read: **Should you buy this gadget
    • yes or no?**

Back to Alexander:

At the end of the day, unlike Ben’s weblog, publications like The Verge are in the business of informing a broad swath of consumers — both technology literate and otherwise. They are not specialized or company dogmatic publications, they are informative websites that have a vested interest in not alienating an enormous segment of users based upon the subjective perspectives of one upset reviews editor.

Actually, if we want to get realistic, publications like The Verge are in the business of satisfying advertisers and making a lot of money. Informing consumers comes secondary. As Alexander states earlier in the interview:

Without imparting a sense of excitement to the reader in each headline and article, these publications come unceremoniously tumbling to the ground. Content is, sadly, secondary for most.

And The Verge is no different.

I'm not saying The Verge doesn't do great work from time to time - it does, but its reviews and editorials are not its strong suit. Where the site really shines are in its well-researched longform pieces, like the one about privately owned military bunkers and RIM's rise and fall. These are fascinating articles that read like something out of a tech-focused The New Yorker.

The majority of "big media" tech blogs are not worth the pixels they use, such as Business Insider/Silicon Alley Insider, ZDNet, CNET (especially right now), Gizmodo, and many more. The Verge may be a little better than them, but not by much, and that has to do with exactly what Alexander said: Advertising.

It's no surprise folks like Andrew Sullivan and Ben Brooks have taken their sites behind paywalls. As Sullivan said in a blog post detailing his reasoning:

But basically, we think we should be as accountable to our readers as we can, and leave a lot of the financial mystery, spin and secrecy of the old media behind.

This isn't about providing as much content as possible to readers. This isn't about flooding a website with "BREAKING" news and "EXCLUSIVE" headlines throughout the day. The Internet has forced news organizations to continually update their sites with new content every few minutes, lest they get forgotten or ignored when something actually newsworthy breaks.

Alexander claimed that a site like The Verge couldn't sustain itself if it adopted a Brooks-style monetization plan:

If all publications operated on the Ben Brooks scale, few would make any money, none would have a sustainable readership, and no one would able to attain review units in the first place.

Is that such a bad thing? Would we be worse-off if there was one less Engadget in the world? One less Cult of Mac? One less site reporting on which phone a former exec at a competing company is using? I don't think so. It's true that success doesn't equal quality (just look at Fifty Shades of Gray and McDonald's), but we also have The New York Times and The New Yorker still going strong(ish).

Perhaps if more sites focused on writing articles that aren't just worth reading, but worth sharing, we'd be able to cull the herd and the truly worthwhile journalistic entities could rise above. Even the sites I mentioned before - Gizmodo, Business Insider, et al. - have great writers being influenced by a quality-crippling hit-based business model.

Let's remove that. Let's stop feeding the machine and put our money where our eyes are. Support the blogs and magazines and newspapers worth keeping around and boycott the journalistically-deficient hit-whores that clog our RSS feeds with garbage.

If "we are what we eat," then what does it say about us if Gawker Media is able to rake in $25 million or more a year?