The subject line seemed innocent enough: "Happy New Year!" I figured that "Herman," a college chum, had written a quick hello. Splendid. I had wondered about his new job, some kind of online gig for Time. But just a click into Herman's communiqui revealed it as yet another piece of "friend" spam.
"If anyone is curious to see how I spent my new year's eve and weekend," Herman wrote to his suppressed recipient list, "I was on duty making sure that the best photos from around the world made it onto our site." He offered the URL to "Into 2000: A TIME Photo Essay." A-ha. Herman wasn't being friendly. He wanted to generate traffic for Time.
Maybe I find the idea of journalists pandering for page counts so annoying because my first decade of work has been spent as a newspaper reporter. There is supposed to be honor in upholding the division between editorial and business. Either you're an underpaid writer chasing a story, advertisers be damned -- or you're one of the handsomely compensated MBAs trying to keep the publication alive by boosting readership and selling ads. But in the Web start-up age, more and more journalists, desperate to get IPO-rich quick, are resorting to P.R. hijinks.
I've received dozens of these pleas for traffic. They use a range of tones. While Herman's request was rather indirect, one that I received a few days later may as well have been slapped on a billboard.
This e-mail came from an editor at PoliticalWag.Com, which best as I can tell is a site that encourages people to post boring thoughts on politics. This spammer and I worked together several years ago at a small paper outside Boston. Instead of explaining why I never liked this guy much, suffice to say that he signed his begging letter with the nickname "Slugger."
In the e-mail, Slugger first apologizes for not writing personally, "but life has been quite hectic for me." Then he introduces his employer's site as an online town hall on "compelling" topics: gun control, school funding and foreign policy. There's more. The site is planning a public relations campaign. "The best possible thing," he writes, is if there could be an increase in traffic and postings on the site timed with the P.R. campaign. Slugger promises that once we're registered, it won't take more than four or five minutes a day to deal with the site. That's not all. He's got free T-shirts.
What a deal. Help out a former colleague. Get free stuff. And if I'm not sparking real debate, at least I'll help create the appearance of debate to dupe the P.R.-fed public. Does Slugger really believe this kind of "editorial" activity passes as journalism? Or is he deluding himself into believing his net worth will increase if he can just get a few friends to build up traffic to the site?
In the old days, a friend might send you a story or tell you "I got a byline in the Times" because he was proud of his accomplishments. Now, though, many online journalists -- who stand to profit from their publication's financial success -- seem to augment their reporting jobs with something more akin to sales and marketing.
Slugger, I'm glad you're at peace with your career change. But why not leave the audience outreach program to someone in marketing? Instead of spamming me, your time might be better spent improving the site's content. When I come clicking, I want more than a free T-shirt.