Last week The Washington Post, along with plenty of other outlets, published some sort of story about how Lynda Carter, the OG Wonder Woman, was on the set of The CW’s Supergirl, something we knew because star Melissa Benoist posted a picture to her Instagram and Twitter account.
This wasn’t exactly news. Carter’s casting had been reported a while ago. But Benoist’s picture generated at least a dozen stories (and that’s just what I saw in my personal reading and Twitter tracking), most of which were formatted thusly:
- Cutesy introductory graf that included the word “wonder” or some derivation thereof because reasons
- Embed of the Instagam picture
- Summation graf that reiterated the news of Carter being cast as the President of the United States
That may not have been the hardest editorial assignment in the world but it did take time and some level of effort to produce. Or at least it does right now until machines are taught how to assemble stories like this without human hands ever becoming involved. The reason the “story” was written is because Supergirl’s a popular show, Benoist is a popular actress and Carter has a lot of fans, so the story exists for the same reason the casting was done in the first place: it’s a good hook. It also exists to generate some kind of ad revenue, though it may only be a few dollars, if that.
But what if these things were handled differently? Sharing is, after all, a natural feature of most all social networks. There’s no real need to embed posts elsewhere unless you’re using them to springboard off of to make a unique argument or point of your own, a hurdle this story doesn’t clear. If there’s no additional context to provide, which there often isn’t, it’s better just to RT/Share/Regram and then expend your editorial resources on something more unique, something that demands more attention from a researcher and reporter.
So here’s the math: Native sharing is low cost (little time spent) and moderate reward (brand association is a positive but there’s no ad revenue). Story creation is high cost (more time spent) but still moderate reward (modest click-throughs in our social-first culture, minimal ad revenue).
Media brands are facing a serious problem as celebrities, like other brands, are publishing on their own and going directly to the fans/audience. 25 years ago the equivalent of that Benoist/Carter pic would have been taken by a professional photographer and distributed to the media by the network’s publicity department, maybe even farmed out as an exclusive somewhere. That would have provided the lucky outlet with something of unique value it could sell to its readership and given them a leg up, however temporarily, in the battle against competing outlets. Now, though, stars post to Instagram and it’s on the publications to monitor and swoop in to try and ride the coattails, selling programmatic ads against generic “content” that can also be found on dozens of other sites.
The publications want to be on top of what’s popular, even if it doesn’t meet an even loose definition of “news,” because it not only generates that ad revenue but because it helps them be seen as hip and of-the-moment with readers. That, as much as anything else, drives the editorial decisions being made at most every publication these days. And no one wants to cede either reputational ground or even a small amount of ad dollars to the competition (which is everyone else), which is what leads to viral sameness, where no one has a unique editorial identity because everyone’s chasing the same 12 stories each day.
I’m not expecting publications and media brands to change their way anytime soon. Anyone who’s already doing this is too dependent on the small hit of the $2.37 in ads created from those stories to leave that on the table. But readers can make the choice to opt out of this garbage journalism and gravitate toward the few publications that are adding context and nuance to the happenings of the day, not the ones that are giving readers exactly what they could find elsewhere with no added value surrounding it.