entrepreneurship, Media, Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good, Silicon Valley, Weblogs, Will the Economy Ever Turn Up?

We've Been in Idiot Land a While Now, Scoble. Get Comfortable.

Robert Scoble has a heartfelt post today that sums up his frustration with noise becoming more important than substance. Well, welcome to journalism in the Internet age. Actually, welcome to journalism period. It's just more pronounced in an age when we can measure how stories do and tend to place value on them solely for that reason. And it's in no way limited to Tech. If it were, CNN wouldn't be reporting on Paris Hilton.

This was a huge personal frustration when I was at BusinessWeek covering startups before they were hot again and important, but unsexy, technology trends like open source software. I would spend months breaking a story with huge impact, only to be dwarfed by traffic for a story that just rehashed the latest Apple rumor. To BusinessWeek's great credit, they still run those unsexy stories prominently, because the BusinessWeek brand of delivering all the news business people need is just as important as sheer page views. (Ahem, they also renewed my columnist contract for another year. Thanks, John Byrne!)

But is this the same in the blog world? Where the whole business is predicated on page views?


This is the reason I have refused to get into that game and don't put advertising on this site. But I have two concerns as we enter this downturn with a page view obsession the industry has never had before: Will tech blogs maintain their focus as traffic dips and will the mainstream media outlets who pay contractors like me still adhere to the journalistic standards that I credit to BusinessWeek in the graph above?

Because make no mistake: All traffic on tech stories is falling and will continue to fall. Covering tech goes in the same volatile ups and downs as the tech market itself. (We just make less money than anyone else in the ecosystem on the upside!) And right now, only the biggest die-hards want to read about technology. It doesn't matter how much news you break or how good the analysis is, people's wallets and portfolios are being decimated and they want to vent, commiserate and scream. (All via reader comments of course.) I should know: Even when I have done a mediocre job on a story about the economy, I've gotten a comparatively bigger traffic boost. And who can blame readers? Whatever loser company du jour our tax dollars is bailing out now is a more important story right now than anything happening in the Valley.

Now, there's a silver lining here, as there always is in a period of great volatility. But it requires that online media think long-term benefit not instant gratification, which is not historically online media's strength. Silver lining part I: All those New York reporters who parachuted in and pretended to be social media experts are now going back to pretending to be Wall Street experts. I won't name names, but good riddance. Silver lining part II: Bloggers and reporters who stick to covering Silicon Valley while it's unsexy to do so won't get the same attention and acclaim they have for the last few years, but when things come back-- and they will-- they will reap the biggest rewards.

Think Michael Arrington: You know why TechCrunch has beat every other tech blog? Because Arrington started covering Web 2.0 before everyone else. Likewise, Kara Swisher continues to break stories because she has covered the Valley through good times and bad. And, while I got a ton of arrows in my back early on for my Web 2.0 coverage -- remember the derision over my statement that YouTube could fetch-gasp!-$500 million?-- I also had tons of access to some of the wave's most interesting personalities. That is the only reason I got a book deal, and that's the only reason it was a good book. The story practically wrote itself, I just had to hang on and get it all down. This blurb by Michael Malone on the back of the book said it all:

"With the collapse of the Internet Bubble, the mainstream media wrote off Silicon Valley and the dot.com world as dead stories – and thus missed the birth of an even bigger and more far-reaching Web phenomenon: on-line communities and social networks, the so-called Web 2.0. Happily, one intrepid reporter, Sarah Lacy, stayed on -- and she now has given us what will likely be the only real record of what happened during that remarkable era. Her portrayals of the founders of companies such as Facebook and Twitter are dead-on, and her reporting will no doubt be a vital source on this amazing time for generations to come. "

Actually, it gives me far too much credit. For one thing, I was hardly the only one. And really, I was just continuing to follow a story that fascinated me. I was lucky that I wound up being in the right place at the right time in 2006 when the story came back-- and my career and life was forever changed.

But this time I'm learning from it. I'm going to fight the temptation for lucrative page views, and keep following the story I know and love: startups, the money that funds them and the crazy entrepreneurs behind them. I may take an income hit in the near term as this credit crisis wears on, but as long as I follow the money and the entrepreneurs, I'll hit on another 2006 sooner or later.

Don't worry, Scoble, a fight over Twitter search features may drive more traffic today, but in the long term good reporting and following your own intellectual curiosity always win out.

Comments

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Started discussing this over at Friendfeed: http://tinyurl.com/axya38

I wish I would be as optimistic on the topic. Main stream news media seems to have long ago forgotten about the important stories and focused on the stories that get them the most viewers.

Mostly, though, I don't think a 'hit' for a shallow story is a aimed against the deeper and more insightful stories, it's just quick and easy drama.

Your audience for in-depth stories is always going to be smaller. Like you said, the hardest part is having this translate with regards to advertisers.

now that was a great and right on. I live in West Texas where our economy is oil/gas driven and no one has experienced more bubbles than the oil/gas sector. The companies that make adjustments during the bad times always come out ahead during the good times.

Thanks Sarah, I agree this is a very real problem and one that doesn't have easy solutions. At least not until we all start linking to the good stuff instead of the more entertaining bitchmemes.

Sarah, while reading your book the entire time I couldn't help but think just how insightful you are in tech culture. While reading this post it hit me just how insightful you are about the world's media.

You really get it, imo.

@peter: i agree it's less lucrative. but you know what? i didn't become a reporter to make money. as long as i can get paid a living wage and my writing speaks to people, it's worth it.

Ahem. Just felt that I had to say something.

Open source is sexy.

Okay then. Carry on.

Yes you are very right.Gossip sites and many such sites get very high hits.Why? Because people don't care about what or whom they are reading but it should be entertaining.Same logic applies to web2.0 journalism.People(bloggers) hype stories like the twitter-facebook deal like a war or something instead of presenting the readers with true stories.The result:Readers stay dumb and they learn nothing new.Only thing they know is this deal is like a big war or something.Your articles I must say are very insightful.And yes open source is not unsexy :-)

I have read this post. This is very much true. I run a part time internet marketing business
I have been collecting many material on internet marketing and checking out Jeff Paul's
internet marketing tactics. I hope that we can keep each other's contacts so I can
discuss my problems Even I own a blog account. I will mention your post in my blog.

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Srah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is an award-winning reporter who has covered high-growth entrepreneurship for more than fifteen years. She is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of PandoDaily.com, the site-of-record for the startup ecosystem. She lives in San Francisco.

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