When I wake up every morning, I have two goals: To write something that either by virtue of information or opinion cannot be found anywhere else, and for people to click on my work. Sometimes, in cases like breaking news that ESPN is exploring the sale of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight or writing lists about 40 under 40 talents or behind the scenes in sports media these goals converge, but more often than not they are distinct and must be pursued independently.
On Monday, former SI and Newsweek writer John Walters had a back-and-forth with our site’s founding editor Jason McIntyre. Jason had shared a post one of our new writers, Bobby Burack, wrote last week asking if LeBron James is still worth the hassle, noting how swiftly the trade deadline and a suddenly resurgent LeBron vanquished that narrative. This was an interesting and justifiable column at the time it was written, and it wasn’t something I’d seen published anywhere else. Anyways, the following dialog (summarized from Twitter and edited for clarity) ensued:
Walters: There’s an Olympics going on, but the guess here is you’ve calibrated that that’s not where one goes to find the clicks.
McIntyre: I didn’t watch a second of it this weekend, haven’t spoken to anyone who did. Every outlet you’ve worked for considers clicks. that’s the business, John.
Walters: It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. Dates back to the ancient Greeks. If clicks is your only god, then you should just show scantily-clad babes in every post. Oh, wait….
McIntyre: Horse racing was huge in this country. boxing was the #1 sport. so was baseball. Clicks are part of the business, not a God. quit acting like you’re seeing the Roundup for the first time. This is the site’s 12th year in existence.
Walters: NBC is showing Olympics in prime time, what, 15 straight nights? It’s not exactly boxing. You’re a businessman. Not a journalist. That’s fine.
McIntyre: Olympics hugely mattered 30 years ago. Less so today. Inarguable. Started a business, did some journalism along the way. Why must you always deal in absolutes?
The Big Lead has three full-time staff writers, two editors and a multimedia editor who contribute writing, and four part-time writers. We can’t cover everything. We can cover things that get clicks, some that interest us personally and some that do not. We can spend time on things we’re interested in, even if it won’t always have mass appeal. But we frankly are not going to spend our time covering subjects that we aren’t interested in and the general public doesn’t visit our site to see.
On a staff our size, there are going to be some gaps in interest and frankly none of us are into the Winter Olympics. A world where we feigned interest wouldn’t benefit anyone, and there are are a thousand other places Walters could go for analysis on luge and figure skating if he were ambitious about seeking it out.
Further, we often get dinged on social media for chasing clicks as if that in and of itself is a bad thing. It wouldn’t be the way I’d draw up the universe but the reality is, there have been too many examples to count where our clickbait gets rewarded by the marketplace in gobsmacking proportion to our journalism and original, high-effort and high-quality work.
Last week, I published a time-stamped diary on a 14-hour day with Peter King. Peter has been one of the most recognizable names in sportswriting for over a quarter-century and is in all likelihood the most prolific football writer since the advent of the Internet. I am very proud of the story I put together, one that illustrates his work ethic and endearing accessibility at a time long past when many of his counterparts have wound their careers down. I probably got 10 notes, from people in the industry or aspiring to be in it, about how much they enjoyed the piece.
We as a site collectively embarked on that story, which took me away from producing blogs that would have undoubtedly added up to more traffic for 2-3 days, because we believed it would be worth it for our plugged-in core of sports media enthusiasts. We’ve done longform pieces on Howard Cosell, Peter Vecsey, George Solomon, Dick Schaap, and John Madden and Pat Summerall along similar lines.
Contrast that with a post I did on Sunday night where I aggregated a video from TMZ where Le’Veon Bell said he wanted R&B singer SZA to be his Valentine, embedded a few Instagram photos, and called it a day. This probably took me about 10 minutes of work. Lo and behold, this blog got picked up and linked, and wound up with about 20x as much traffic as the Peter King story that I thought was a special piece, and one I could write maybe a few times a year because of the energy and time involved.
There are two pieces I think about often when I decide what stories to pursue — Hamilton Nolan’s “The Problem With Journalism Is You Need an Audience” and a 2015 New York Times story about how Cecil the Lion dominated the Internet clicks realm. After one critic said that consuming this type of coverage was like “eating a whole bag of Doritos,” Kevin Merida (then of the Washington Post, now an executive at ESPN who oversees The Undefeated and more) quipped, “I like Doritos.” The implication here was that even a publication as historically prestigious for its reporting as the Washington Post could not afford to eschew the aggregated junk food that subsidizes the bills.
Journalism and clickbait can live in the same ecosystem. We will see in the long run if places like The Athletic can bypass the latter with a subscription business model, but for those of us who work for sites dependent on display advertising everything must be weighed out strategically. We cannot afford to do things that don’t get read, when it’s not something we love.