MEDIA JULY 29, 2013
There is much to be said about the interview Reza Aslan did Friday on Fox News’ online show “Spirited Debate.” Aslan, a Muslim writer who converted from Christianity (to which he had converted from Islam) who holds a doctorate in sociology of religions, just published a popular book about Jesus. Fox News, which like U.S. Steel is vertically integrated, ginned up “controversy” over the book by publishing an article claiming that the “liberal media” routinely fails to disclose that Aslan is a “devout Muslim,” and then reported on the (again, auto-fabricated) “controversy” by having host Lauren Green confront him with this. Having established Aslan’s Muslim-ness, Green conspiratorially asks, “It still begs the question: Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” She then accuses him of obfuscating his faith, and he responds by noting that a statement of his religion appears on “the second page of my book” (page xviii, to be more precise). It’s amazing. Watch the whole thing.
But how should you watch the whole thing? Therein lies another story, one far newer and more significant than Fox News being Fox News.
Above, I’ve linked you to Fox News’ own video of the interview, which, after all, it produced exclusively for its show. This was the video I saw for the first time Saturday afternoon; I saw it tweeted by Blake Hounshell, a journalist who works at Politico. But if you search Twitter for a link to that video, you won’t find too much—several dozen links, more on Saturday than on Sunday (and a few even on Friday). That is because pretty soon after Hounshell tweeted it, various aggregators found it and started tweeting their own articles. Gawker did not post it until Sunday morning, yet its link has garnered roughly as many tweets as Fox News’.
And then there is BuzzFeed. Look how many tweets have linked to BuzzFeed’s article on the video. Staff writer Andrew Kaczynski’s post—which comprises solely a headline, a lengthy subheadline (the dek, journalists call this), and the embedded video—has as of this writing garnered nearly three million pageviews. “The traffic to this @buzzfeedandrew post is so out of control,” tweeted BuzzFeed’s senior press director Ashley McCollum last night. It is difficult to disagree.
It is not surprising that BuzzFeed would leverage this best. As I reported in a New Republic story about the site a year ago, its presence on social media, its clean layout, and its editorial philosophy of shearing most context from tidbits of news and giving readers just the thing itself—all make the site immaculately positioned to capitalize on the new news economy, in which readers increasingly find things like this video not by subscribing to or regularly visiting specific blogs or websites, but by happening upon independent articles shared via social media like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. Indeed, more than half of BuzzFeed’s pageviews have come from people clicking on links to the post that their friends shared on Facebook. (And don’t sleep on Kaczynski’s headline—headlines being something that I would bet BuzzFeed spends a substantial amount of time thinking about. Kaczynski’s headline was, “Is This The Most Embarassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?” Don’t you want to click and find out?)
It didn’t have to be this way. Kaczynski could have just tweeted the Fox News video. In fact, that is what he did do a half-hour after Hounshell did. A few hours later, though, he decided to make it BuzzFeed’s own, and thereby get the type of pageviews all but a handful of journalists would kill for. For me, anyway, Hounshell “scooped” Kaczynski; but BuzzFeed, because it is BuzzFeed, got the pageviews and Politico didn’t. And these are arguably pageviews that—in a weird, troll-y way—should be Fox News’.
Partly, this isn’t new. People have been complaining about aggregators “stealing” content since Huffington Post in the mid-2000s. But social media’s ubiquity, and the way that ubiquity makes everyone a publisher, means this is different. In theory, a huge population could have viewed the interview—but only via Fox News’ video. All it would take would be for the video only to be available on Fox News, and for everyone who tweeted, Facebooked, and Digged all the different posts including it instead only to have shared Fox News’ video. That wasn’t true five years ago, when people would still have relied on other sites linking to the video.
And several of these sites did more than just aggregate. While a few simply linked either to the Fox News video or to an abridged segment posted on YouTube (which itself is owned by an obscure media company called Google), others—including BuzzFeed and also Slate, which generally styles itself as more of a boutique Web magazine—apparently created their own videos of the interview. Note that theirs are of a slightly different length than Fox News’; more importantly, note that when you click to create a link for the BuzzFeed or Slate videos, you get a link to BuzzFeed’s and Slate’s articles, respectively. Presumably this constitutes fair use since the interview itself is newsworthy—whether as a somewhat heated exchange with a prominent writer or as a document of Fox News’ decadent stage. (Ironically, BuzzFeed does not run banner ads, so it does not directly monetize pageviews in the way most other online media outlets do. But Web traffic is extremely important to its business nonetheless.)
One wants to find villains in this story, but I can’t (other than Fox News, of course). You can arguably knock BuzzFeed (and Slate and whoever else) a little bit for putting up their own “versions” of something that was originally filmed for exclusive airing, but the basic concept of aggregating a piece of news is basically unimpeachable. Kaczynski, meanwhile, is a talented reporter whose special skill of trawling online video archives to find past instances of public figures saying things that the years have made newsworthy is frequently on display and of benefit to the public. And even if that weren’t true, he still was doing his job.
Concrete conclusions are similarly elusive, at least to me. This episode did call to mind a phenomenon I have seen increase even in just the past few years, which is that it is harder to find experts—professors or think-tankers, say—available to comment exclusively on various stories, because more and more frequently they themselves are writers for online magazines or their own, personal blogs or even their own, personal Twitter feeds. The explosion in the ability to self-publish is redefining what publishing is and what kind of things publishers can make money off of. So I suppose the question becomes: What, in this era, can traditional journalism somehow add to the mix? And how can that, too, score pageviews and make money?