Is there a place for the truth in journalism today?

Journalists have a noble mission to protect the public by speaking the truth about the complex world we live in. That’s why so many principled people choose this low-paying — while absurdly demanding — career.

It’s a maddening vocation, as truth is elusive and frequently corrupted by powerful individuals for nefarious reasons — principally, staying in, and expanding, their power.

I’ve been drawn to journalism — writing — my whole adult life. Movies and TV shows like All the President’s Men, Roger and Me, Frontline, 60 Minutes, and The Insider infected me with the disease so many hacks have tested positive for: the search for truth.

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The internet also infected me at this same time, creating a powerful cocktail that convinced me that journalists empowered by a global, free, and open platform would ensure that the truth was — once and for all — going to triumph over corrupt and legion forces holding it back.

And for a while it seemed we were heading in the right direction.

While it was easy for the malicious to spread lies on the anonymous internet, it became impossible for those forces to hold back the truth. 

Today, in a sickening and twisted turn, journalism has been perverted to the point at which the public expects — by default — that what they are reading is simply not true.

  1. Headlines are no longer designed to inform the public, they are designed to get the public to click — A/B tested in many cases for this purpose.
  2. Sources are no longer called in advance of publication, because giving them a chance to respond would result in a less marketable headline.
  3. The truth is actively spun to turn people and organizations into inaccurate caricatures that can be ridden over time by publications to optimize for rage — because rage results in page views.
  4. Journalists are judged by their ability to drive traffic, not to tell the truth.
  5. Publications are backed by venture capitalists, driven by exponential growth in traffic that is only possible by deploying link-baiting science — and ignoring the truth.
  6. Publications that do a thorough job as journalists are punished by having link-baiting, traffic-whoring, venture-backed brands reblog their content with an emphasis on spinning the truth! So, if you spend $10,000 on an exceptional story you can fully expect Business Insider will break it into 10+ blog posts which do not match the truth, getting them 100x the traffic you did for 1% of the cost.
  7. Journalists are now incented by increased compensations and career advancement by following these link-baiting, traffic-whoring techniques than by actually doing journalism.
  8. Extreme voices drive more traffic than reasonable ones, so journalists who want to tell the truth won’t do well in our perverted ecosystem. By featuring extreme voices, the world’s problems — be they climate change, radicalized religions, gun control, or equality — are perceived as unsolvable by the public.

The public we journalists were supposed to protect are now the victims in this race to the bottom.

My solution: time to truth

Lest you think I’m just going to sit here on my blog and bemoan these problems without proposing — or building — solutions let me fill you in on how I propose to solve this sad state of affairs.

Now, it’s important to note that during all this sell-out madness being done at Upworthy, Business Insider, and Buzzfeed, there is actually more exceptional journalism occurring — sometimes at the same publications that do the bullshit!

In fact, the state of the art is “high and low” publishing: produce high-end feature stories so that when you get called out for your link-baiting garbage you have something to point to! 

My idea is to create a platform for curation that sits around this entire mess. It’s called Inside.com and here is how it works: 

  1. People submit stories (urls) to the site that they think are high-quality. We call these folks curators.
  2. My team of college-educated writers decide if the submission is 1/high-quality, 2/not a duplicate of an existing story, and 3/from a quality author & source.
  3. My team writes a 250-character (about two sentences) summary of the story that is designed to be filled with facts and that gets you to the truth as fast as possible.
  4. My team puts these stories into the proper topics so you can subscribe to them by email or mobile phone (i.e., Inside.com/space, Inside.com/tv, Inside.com/apple).
  5. Users who start their content journey at Inside.com will, if we do our job right over the coming years, get to the truth while avoiding all the noise. We have a lot of work to do, but we are halfway there. The platform is 80% built out.

Our obsession is: “time to truth”

Time to truth: How quickly can we get our readers to the truth contained in the story?

If you compare the home page at BusinessInsider.com or Huffingtonpost.com to Inside.com/top you will see the same stories. However, on our site you can read them quickly, without link-baiting headlines and with an actual summary rather than a headline. 

Some folks have called us the “Presidential Daily Brief,” which is high praise. 

We haven’t figured everything out, but we have a couple hundred thousand folks using the site per month and loving it. They’re super loyal. Specifically, we are running into the following problems: 

  1. If we spend our time un-spinning stories, we get many fewer clicks on social media. If someone says “You’ll never believe what Elon Musk did today” and we say “Elon Musk successfully landed his Grasshopper rocket,” you can guess who will get better “performance.”
  2. The better we summarize the news, the quicker you get in and out of the App. So, our product looks like it has shorter times than ones that require a ton of clicks to get to the truth.
  3. Because we try to tell the truth, we don’t focus on the extreme people who are almost always factually wrong and intellectually dishonest. We’re up against publications that show stupid folks saying stupid stuff, which gets a lot of clicks.

I have ideas on how to solve some of these challenges, but boy would I love to hear from y’all! Also, when we release our API in Q2 the public will make products based on our clean data that we didn’t think of. Do let me know if you have an idea for a product and if it’s awesome I will put you in the API beta.

 

 

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