Danger Will Robinson…The Link Economy Has A Dark Side

OK, I know I mixed my geek metaphors in my headline, but I wanted to explain my idea in a catchy way.  The thing that is bothering me right now is a collection of ideas that are percolating in my brain.  Dave Winer at Scripting The News hit the nail on the head about the danger of the link economy when it is mixed with journalism.

He has a great video of John C Dvorak at what appears to be an Apple Store and he is basically saying that he “baits” people with stories he know they will trip over themselves running to comment on.  This is especially easy for Mac stories, he says.  Then he posts a follow up story that says he was confused, but restates his original point, driving more traffic.  And then finally a second follow up that does a 180 on his original opinion.

Now he is an opinion writer, but this method of his is fairly successful.  We know it works to drive stories to the top of Digg or the Twitter trending topics list, etc.  Great, this is the link economy at work, some say.  What’s the problem?  The problem is, that it is dishonest.  It subverts the link economy.  It is baiting – creating traffic by creating controversy.

I see a future where journalists do this too.  What am I talking about, it is already happening in the present – FOX News, CNN and MSNBC all do it every day and night.  The internet will only cause this to spread as journalists become more and more dependent on driving traffic to their sites via the link economy.

The SimsBlog has an equally odious addition to this problem.  Judy Sims suggests that internet journalists should be asking their advertisers what they want in the publication.  She continues by saying that advertisers don’t want to be seen near the real news of the day.  It is too depressing.

Put the first concept with the second one and you have a recipe for journalists that cozy up to advertisers and write copy that gets a lot of traffic by stirring up controversy – not news.  Not the kind of controversy that unearthed the Watergate conspiracy or the kind of journalism that will keep future Enrons or Madoffs at bay.  It will be the kind of controversy like Bill Clinton’s Oval Office trysts with interns and Sarah Palin’s daughter’s out of wedlock pregnancy.

I also see reviews of products that are favorable to the advertisers of the site they are on.  I see automakers, filmmakers and other industries totally owning the “press” that cover them.  What backpack journalists can afford to anger their sponsors.  The margins at these future journalism sites will be so narrow that they won’t be able to afford lawsuits or to have their advertising pulled.

I think as we go forward, ethics and journalism are going to be more important as the temptation to game the system and cater to advertisers will be greater than ever, but I worry that the economics of journalism in the future may make these concepts seem outdated.