A few months ago, a reporter from a major news organization contacted me about the evangelical debate over hell. Counterfeit Gospels was hot off the presses, and since the book includes a chapter on the “Judgmentless Gospel,” I understood the reason why the reporter contacted me. But I thought to myself: There are people out there who are more qualified to speak on this subject. But I’m happy to speak biblical truth whenever asked.
The reporter and I talked for about forty minutes. When we finished, I waited… nervously. I wondered if she would represent my position fairly and quote me correctly. I knew that this major news site was going to put the article on their website’s front page and that they would feature a link back to my blog. Having never been linked from a major news organization before, I wondered what that would do to my blog traffic.
A couple days later, the reporter wrote me back, informing me that the piece was now online and asking me to post a link on my website. I shot off a quick email back, to clarify the spelling of my name. When she responded, she asked again that I post the link on my website. At this point, I remember thinking, Strange. You’d think she was more concerned about what my piddly little link would do for her news organization’s traffic than what her mega-website would do for mine.
I soon figured out why. On the day the article was posted, I monitored my blog traffic. Over the course of 24 hours, my blog sent hundreds of people to her article, whereas her website sent only a few dozen to my blog. Furthermore, one of the other two people quoted was a popular blogger/scholar. Out of all the people she could have interviewed for this story, she made sure two out of three had an online presence.
Then it dawned on me. The mainstream media needs blogs in order to get traffic to their own websites. The real reason the reporter called on me was not primarily because of my book or my education or my pastoral experience, but because of my blog platform.
The Changing Face of News
News is not what it used to be. Blogs and non-traditional news sources are seen for the audiences they have (and can transfer!). The mainstream media, still bleeding after the onslaught of cable and the internet, crave the attention that blogs already have. Media websites also need traffic in order to hold on to their advertisers.
I remember when the late Michael Spencer (Internet Monk) wrote a piece about the coming evangelical collapse. The Drudge Report linked to Michael’s article in The Christian Science Monitor. Michael later talked in a podcast about how much attention that link from Drudge brought him. What a shift! The iMonk was surprised by the attention given his article, not from CNN, Fox News, ABC, or CBS – but a popular blog.
Then there is an even crazier type of change. News stories are crafted more to search engines than to people (since search engines bring the people). Some writers use programs that change the language of their articles, effectively loading them with keywords that appeal to Google’s search engine. This leads us to news that is even more manufactured than before.
What Does This Do to News?
So I’m wondering out loud what all of this means when it comes to news reporting. At one level, the democratization of news is a good thing. News organizations are partnering with people to get the word out. Amateur cell phone videos are frequently used on news programs. Twitter allows us to witness and (at times) make history.
At another level, I wonder what the long-term ramifications are. Here are some questions that are still unresolved:
- Does the desire for blog traffic determine what gets reported?
- Do the mainstream news outlets post articles and news based on how much attention they will receive?
- Do reporters write their articles based on how they might attract attention from search engines?
- Do reporters choose to talk to people with perceived platforms, whether or not they are the most qualified people to speak to about the subject?
- Does the need for advertising revenue on websites determine the kinds of news articles we see?
- Does this explain while some news channels specialize in giving us talking heads (which are interesting and bring more viewers) while others go about the more boring task of reporting important events (even if they aren’t the most exciting)?
I don’t have answers to these questions. It’s true that news organizations have dealt with these pressures for decades now. (The nightly news shows need advertisers as well.) But the internet appears to have increased these pressures. What are the benefits for us? What are the drawbacks?