Murky Mastheads

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There’s an old saying in politics that perception is reality (attributed to Lee Atwater). If you want an example, look no further than blogs written under the guise of venerable mastheads like Forbes, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.

Consider the perception of journalistic excellence these mastheads possess — and yes, even new media outlets like Techcrunch, Mashable, and others. What these branded blogs deliver often strays from the greatness they promise. Yet people consider these blogs authoritative for some reason.

With so much chum and hubris floated to succeed in the attention economy, what we get is not what is perceived.

These venerable mastheads use relatively unknown voices — usually independent bloggers with no real journalistic training — to deliver the typical social media show, a pageantry of murky information and questionable data. The mastheads get to say they are blogging (and degrade their journalistic worth). We as a public continue to lose ground on quality information.

I find myself increasingly trying to discern fact from fiction, truth from myth, and personal justification from rational cause with online by-lined information.

What we get is hit or miss quality, and the mastheads do nothing to delineate the difference.

Learning to separate ourselves from perception, questioning it really, continues to become a critical skill set in the 21st century information age.

The Jerry Springer Blog Show

Jerry Springer the Opera
Image by RSAMD

Recently I privately observed several masthead bloggers blame others for sourcing bad information. Instead of owning the errors and checking their facts, the authors went on a self-justified smear campaign.

In fact, just about anytime someone disagrees with a blogger publicly it turns into a overly dramatic mud-slinging show spread across every social network on earth.

When I talk with CMOs about bloggers or “influencers,” they often voice an air of comic disdain. They realize the need to embrace online influencers as part of the larger information ecosystem, but they think we’re full of hot air.

This is true of all bloggers, masthead or not.

I agree with them, too. Most blogs — masthead included — are highly subjective in intent and motive, marketing a personality or business or initiative.

And this blog is no different. I market my consultancy here.

It’s our fault as a general public for celebrating popularity, attention and pageantry — the perception of excellence — rather than demanding substantive grounded information. The mastheads have responded by institutionalizing more of the same, the perception of hip bloggy information. We get what we Like, Tweet, Plus, Love, Pin, etc.

Welcome to the Jerry Springer show of masthead blogs. The unreality of news is upon us.

What do you think about the quality of masthead (and/or independent) blogs?

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  • http://www.jasonkonopinski.com/ Jason Konopinski

    I’d say that there’s a systemic issue with media to be the first to publish on breaking news, to the detriment of accuracy and quality.

    • geofflivingston

      Traditionally, media is supposed to deliver news so I guess it is a catch 22, but I would add that blogs are not really news venues, rather pundits use them to discuss news. Of course some blogs are really modern media outlets, but you catch my drift.

  • http://www.steigmancommunications.com Daria Steigman

    I’m not sure it’s a question of masthead so much as of content frenzy. I think Jason’s right that some of the lack of fact checking on “journo” sites can be attributed to the rush to be first — but I also think a part of the broader problem is the rush to be on page 1. Of Google. Of Bing. So many of these big brands seem focused on having A LOT OF CONTENT — and this means taking just about all comers. I have a HBR feed, for example, but I generally roll my eyes at the lack of quality of many of the people who blog under their name. I keep it for the 2-3 really smart people who still blog under their auspices while waiting for the day they move away because of HBR’s diminishing reputation.

    • http://gearboxmagazine.com/ Brian Driggs

      Agreed. I have friends who write for two larger automotive outlets. Sadly, as much as I respect both of them and enjoy following their work, I have to relegate their RSS feeds to a single folder I’ve labeled “Churn.” I don’t have time – or interest – in reading 20 posts per day on every single item of “news.” I’d remove both feeds, but I’d feel guilty doing so.

      @Geoff – Can’t say I really buy into the legacy masthead bloggers. To be honest, I didn’t even think to visit those sites until you mentioned them. Sadly, there’s far more effort put into suggesting excellence than actually delivering it.

      Masthead on my sites are pretty clear, imho. Gearbox Magazine says, “Stories of real people doing real things with cars they actually own will always be more important,” and my personal site says, “Cars, Community, Collaboration, Children?” Heh.

      • geofflivingston

        LOL, perception is not reality. Crappy blogs are still crappy blogs. Nice masthead on your site, Brian.

        • http://gearboxmagazine.com/ Brian Driggs

          Thanks, Geoff.

      • http://www.steigmancommunications.com Daria Steigman

        Love the “Churn” label.The other question to whether the folks doing all the churning realize that rather than elevating their profile they are (or risk) diluting their brand.

        • http://gearboxmagazine.com/ Brian Driggs

          They have pretty good brands. Don’t think the churn will harm them in any way. Not with the market being the way it is. Gotta remember, 1% of netizens create content, 9% share content, 90% merely consume content. That’s why “build-an-audience, monetize-with-advertising” is the order of the day when it comes to news and information.

          There are plenty of people for whom the draw is distraction from their disengaged, corporate monotony and the allure of splitting hairs with strangers behind a veil of pseudo-anonymity. I’ve seen reports (ProBlogger, CopyBlogger, ThatOtherBigBlogger – I forget) showing how increased daily post frequency can lead to increased pageviews and retention.

          #shrug

          • http://twitter.com/ExtremelyAvg Brian D. Meeks

            I just use my blog for writing novels. I have 18 subscribers, so I’m not quite ready for the monetize-with-advertising model, yet. That being said, I did have a fun thing happen a few months back. Someone clicked on my link for my book on Amazon and while they didn’t buy it, they did buy 50 bibles. I have no idea why they went through my link, but I made enough on that one sale to cover the cost of my blog for four months.

      • http://twitter.com/ExtremelyAvg Brian D. Meeks

        I agree with Brian. I don’t regularly visit any of those bloggers, mostly because I spend my time with bloggers I know and trust. I’m quite happy with the reading they provide.

    • geofflivingston

      I agree. Even though Penguin sought to eradicate bad content, Google still rewards frequency over quality and that creates the need for mastheads to develop content farms. Personally, I trust my network to deliver good posts from these sites because I find so much of the stuff written on them suffers.

  • http://twitter.com/annelizhannan Anneliz Hannan

    Being from the healthcare sector, I remember well the expression felt by medical researchers ‘publish or perish’. This has seeped into all arenas now as @jasonkonopinski:disqus states as a systemic issue.

    Not everyone needs to be a publisher or blogger but we all have the responsibility to not be enablers by questioning the sources or thesis promoted, demanding quality and not idolizing quantity and packaging.

    • geofflivingston

      Publish or perish. That is what we face. Well said, Anneliz.

      I decided a while back to perish on the top rankings because I refuse to up frequency beyond what I can deliver. I am more than comfortable with that decision. I’d rather deliver quality.

  • http://www.inboundandagile.com/ Eric Pratum

    I think you only have to read about the Buzzfeed/Oatmeal controversy to get a great example of this – http://theoatmeal.com/blog/jack_stuef

    • http://www.jasonkonopinski.com/ Jason Konopinski

      Seriously.

    • geofflivingston

      OMG!

  • http://www.writerightwords.com/ Erin Feldman

    This might be an odd reaction, but the whole thing makes me grateful for the professors who poked holes in my papers and made me think about how to argue a point.

    I would like to think the popularity of masthead blogs eventually will wane due to lackluster reporting, but I don’t know that that will be the case.

    • geofflivingston

      Tough teachers made us better writers. I’m glad my Dad — who used to be managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News — pounded home the lesson of sources. Without them the stories are worthless.

  • http://www.engag.io/Abdallah Abdallah Al-Hakim

    Like @twitter-167180768:disqus I also come from a science background and the ‘publish or perish’ mentality has led to too many scientific articles being published in a hasty manner. Still, the scientific community does have a peer-reviewed process which, while it is far from perfect, it provides a review/confirm process. However, with many of the popular technology sites, there doesn’t seem to be a general verification method and it is dependant on the particular writer. This is where commenting as a platform to question and challenge would be idea.

    • geofflivingston

      I’d say the unfortunate thing about commenting is the creation of die hard communities that say yes to whatever the author says regardless of merit. This creates a less credible validation mechanism than the scientific community, though that may change if we become more discerning as readers.

      • http://www.engag.io/Abdallah Abdallah Al-Hakim

        it is true that some commenting communities become a fan club for the author but the truly good ones are not like that and usually offer contrarian views. The best ones are those have commenters branching in their own conversations independent of the author. One of my favourite commenting community is the one at Fred Wilson’s avc.com site.

  • http://dannybrown.me/ Danny Brown

    Interesting topic, mate, and great conversation in the comments. For me, i see it as a double-edged sword – we (as consumers) want information now or we’re going elsewhere. That puts a tremendous strain on publications looking to provide that information, both for us and their stakeholders. Though I agree that “marquee” publications like the ones you share need better editorial and restrictions on who writes for them, I also feel that marquee is in the eye of the beholder.

    I’d never recommend Mashable to anyone – it has the odd golden nugget there but for the most part it’s bubblegum news. I would have recommended HBR for the longest time but now I feel it’s been diluted by the drive for views and social relevance.

    But, on the flip side, we (as consumers) have to take responsibility too. It’s like the old adage your mother asked: “If your friend jumped off a cliff, would you?”. If you believe everything you read and hear online and don’t take some semblance of responsibility to make sure it’s right, then you can’t really say “But that scientist who’s really a mathematician said so.” ;-)

    • geofflivingston

      How many times have I jumped off the cliff, and said, oh shit, I just broke my leg because I’m the fool that followed that fool? LOL. Times are a changing that’s for sure, and it is definitely a double-edged sword as you point out, Danny. Thanks for adding this perspective.

    • http://twitter.com/StephenApp Stephen App

      Danny, I think you bring up an excellent point here, and that’s the lack of critical reading. Geoff is bringing up bad content written on reputable mastheads, and that’s a valid complaint, but I think criticism also needs to be brought against readers who don’t take time to truly contemplate what they’re reading. It’s possibly a result of data-overload, but information consumers really suck at critically thinking about what they are reading.

      • http://dannybrown.me/ Danny Brown

        It’s the fast food data economy, Stephen – we want to be ahead of the game so much, we forget that we need to actually understand the rules of the game first. Hey ho…

  • http://www.swordandthescript.com/ Frank Strong

    I have faith in capitalism thought Geoff. Those mastheads you speak of are a shell of their former selves. Those that used to get thousands of social shares, now get hundreds. They cycle through writers every 12 months, which cannot be long enough to cultivate the contacts needed to get real scoops. As for blogs like yours? It’s not the same thing, IMHO. I expect to see your opinion here. But masthead blogs? They more or less function like a news organization and think they are held to a higher standard.

    • geofflivingston

      I’d agree. How funny is it that Forbes is allowing blogs on the Fortune 100? Um, yeah.

      And you’re right, an individual pundit’s blog is not the same as a masthead’s, but I didn’t want to have a blogger accuse me of the old glass house ;)

  • http://www.thejackb.com/ The JackB

    I can’t count the number of times I have seen people get into silly arguments because they were fighting about things that are factually incorrect.

    The race to publish isn’t helping but consumers/readers play a role too because our job is to ask questions and not just accept what is fed to us.

    But since many don’t it is easy to say almost anything without fear of consequence.

    • geofflivingston

      Totally. If you’re ignorant about what you read, then you get what you deserve to some extent. I think the whole mess works to support the paywall model. Thanks for coming by, Jack!

  • http://twitter.com/Soulati Jayme Soulati

    So where and who are the police?

    • geofflivingston

      Paywalls, my friend, paywalls.

  • http://twitter.com/MaureenB2B Maureen Blandford

    Standing, applauding. I just G+’d a post by MarketingProfs where they cite research saying that B2B Marketers don’t have confidence in what they’re doing in Content Marketing but they perceive their biggest challenge to be that they’re not producing enough. Huh?

    I’ve been dismayed for a couple of years by what’s happened with Forbes – I hadn’t noticed as much with HBR.

    But yes – the crazy push for massive amounts of content is just…crazy.

    Bravo you for shining a spotlight on the sourcing of bad information.

    Quality information, as you say, very hard to come by.

    • geofflivingston

      I know that I decided when I was rebuilding this blog to not bow to the frequency equation if I couldn’t deliver a good blog every time. So for me, it’s four posts a week, and that’s a lot. But I doubt I’ll ever become top ranked again with this current frequency demands. That’s OK. I think I have a loyal readership.

      The thing is we have to look at as marketers, not PR pros trying to inspire top rank for perception. Marketers want measurable outcomes that impact their business. I want leads. This works!

      • http://twitter.com/MaureenB2B Maureen Blandford

        In a non-Psychedelic ’70s B2B world, the only rankings that would matter would be business earned. Period.

        But we live in a world where slide decks are called ‘eBooks’ and ticking a box on LinkedIn is called an endorsement.

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