Media’s bait-and-switch mistake

The problem with the media business is we built it on a lie. People come for the stories, whatever the medium. But they don’t pay for the stories. Instead, our business says ‘here, dear reader/listener/viewer, we know you came for that wonderful story, but let us show you this ad, instead.’

It’s a bait-and-switch business model. No one outside the advertising and publishing business has ever liked it. And McLuhan was wrong to argue that people actually came for the ads. (He was right to say they often are better than the content. That point was driven home to me when my children were very young — they would stop at the ads in magazines and look up from what they were doing if an ad came on television.) People come for the stories.

Only we’ve forgotten that in what appears to be a desperate quest to get attention. This piece by my former Red Herring colleague Scott Raynovich, “The Great Internet Fake-out,” gets at the problem of ad fraud and click bait (where headlines promise one thing and deliver something far less), and how we despise being lied to (he quotes a frustrated me on page two). I was talking with Jon Maples, the former editor-in-chief of Rhapsody, and he commented that it used to be journalists wanted to tell stories and companies wanted to get your attention. Now, companies want to tell stories (witness HubSpot hiring Dan Lyons as a ‘marketing fellow’) and journalists want your attention.

It’s an insidious shift. Of course, I want people to pay attention to what I write, but not because someone came up with a fake headline that will cause people to think I am a liar. When advertisers are more truthful than journalists, something’s gotta give.

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