Facebook product director Mike Hudack is not pleased about the state of news media. And it appears that a Vox article, about how to care for your Levis jeans, tipped him over the edge. Naturally, he took to his public Facebook wall to let off a little steam -- in the form of an eight-paragraph rant lamenting the current state of news organizations.
"It's well known that CNN has gone from the network of Bernie Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett reporting live from Baghdad in 1991 to the network of kidnapped white girls," Hudack begins. "Our nation's newspapers have, with the exception of The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal been almost entirely hollowed out. They are ghosts in a shell."
Evening news, he says, has become no better than tabloids, and Hudack leaves no network or organization untouched.
So where do people turn for news: the Internet. But alas, Hudack doesn't see a savior within Internet journalism:
"We could have gotten it in The Huffington Post but we didn't. We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed's homepage is like CNN's but only more so. Listicles of the "28 young couples you know" replace the kidnapped white girl. Same thing, different demographics."
(Vice, according to Hudack, is one of the only online media organizations doing it right.)
Hudack's knight in shining armor was Ezra Klein and his new explainer site, Vox. Sadly, that too was another letdown:
"And we come to Ezra Klein. The great Ezra Klein of Wapo and msnbc. The man who, while a partisan, does not try to keep his own set of facts. He founded Vox. Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.
And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is 'How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever." Which is better than "you can't clean your jeans by freezing them.'"
Naturally this post stirred up some consternation in the media. Many have responded to point out that Facebook is actually the root of many of these evils.
Great. You've tapped into a lot of frustration here, as you can see! But nothing is going to get even the slightest bit better until we know more about how the News Feed algorithm works, and (I hope) that algorithm changes. Until then, it's just going to be wave after wave of aping BuzzFeed.
I've been using Facebook almost every day since ... 2006 I guess? I want it to be better as a user, not just because it affects my job.
My perception is that Facebook is the major factor in almost every trend you identified. I'm not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they'd say, "They work on Facebook." And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don't have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook's social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.
Klein himself chimed in saying:
It's funny: last night, we were having a conversation around the mix of content on Vox. And we were saying that if you just looked at what worked well on FB it was a lot lighter than if you looked at what was on the site. We actually try pretty hard not to be swallowed up by those incentives. But it's a bit baffling to read a post by Facebook's product director that just ignores the fact that those incentives exist.
To which Hudack responded:
Ezra, I'm not ignoring the incentives. Those incentives have always existed. It's always easier to sell twinkies.
Also, I would love for Facebook to find more ways to drive traffic to great reporting. I think that simply blaming Facebook for driving people to bad content is lazy though.
The back and forth between Klein and Hudack was ongoing at the time of publication, and can be followed along here.
Hudack's complaint, and the subsequent response, may have struck a nerve, but they're far from new issues facing news organizations. (And one that cannot be blamed solely on Facebook's algorithm. Although, as Vox points out, it has quite a bit to do with how news is shared and promoted.)
It is a gross understatement to say that the Internet has drastically altered all forms of media. (I feel silly just typing it.) Publishers are faced with ever-mutating challenges: How do you produce good news, and put it out for free? When ads reap far less revenue per unit on the digital landscape, how are you supposed to make up that difference? How do you compete with multiple screens? Hell, how do you pay reporters and writers to produce enough content in a Twitter-dominated landscape? Should they introduce a paywall?
In the face of these seemingly unsurmountable hurdles, there's actually a trove of great journalism being produced. (You just might not find it on the front page of Facebook.)
At the end of his rant Hudack states, "It's hard to tell who's to blame. But someone should fix this shit."
Yes, somebody should.
The entire Facebook post can be read below: