Turning inner space into outer space

August 16, 2014

Robin Williams tragedy shows desperation of the media

Here’s the bad news about how the media treated Robin Williams’ suicide:

The good news is that ABC News was inundated with complaints, and has issued an apology.

When we realized there was no news value to the live stream, we took it down immediately. Our intention was not to be insensitive to his family, friends and fans, and for that we apologize.

It’s good to see that there are still some lines that can’t be crossed. It’s still bad, though, that ABC even contemplated aerial photography of the Williams home. What could they possibly have been hoping for?

The answer, most likely, is that they knew there would be nothing of any real consequence to show, but they figured the promise of aerial shots would give a nice boost to their page views and help make them more money from ad sales.

An example of the kind of thinking that goes on in newsrooms these days comes from a New York Daily News memo made public by Jim Romenesko. It was written by deputy managing editor Cristina Everett:

Thank you to everyone who did a great story [sic] with keeping our stories SEO strong with the * Robin Williams dead at 63 * header for the first 24 hours. Starting tomorrow morning, we can scale back on the robot talk (meaning no death header) just as long as the stories continue to start with his full name and include buzzy search words like death, dead, suicide, etc.

In case you’re not familiar with the term SEO, it stands for search engine optimization. This is the voodoo art of writing headlines in such a way that they will appear at or near the top of Google search results.

And the New York Daily News was indeed rewarded for its efforts. Their story ranks first if you search “Robin Williams dead at 63.”

Should we be mad at the media for resorting to these tactics? That’s a tough call. Statistics clearly show that people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, want their news from the Internet. The news industry is trying to respond to this demand, but is struggling to find a way of generating enough online revenue to pay the bills or even make a profit.

Advertising remains one of the big ways to make money, and advertisers demand that their ads be seen by as many people as possible. So news sites scramble to increase the number of clicks on their stories by every means at their disposal.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it, though. When they go too far we should complain. And we should also be willing to reward responsible news sites by paying for subscriptions, memberships and the like.

Otherwise, we might find we’re paying too a high price for “free.”