2 Nov 2009

'If I Make You Angry Enough, Maybe You'll Keep Reading'

By Jason Wilson
Editors use flimsy commentary from 'trollumnists' like Miranda Devine to stir up outrage. But baiting readers in this way ultimately hurts your organisation, writes Jason Wilson
It used to be that to get your own column in a broadsheet, you needed to add some value. Expertise, skill in interpreting social and political developments, or a distinguished history as a journalist were rewarded with a bit more space in the paper. There, you could spin out a longer-form piece analysing burning issues in a little more depth, or you could even act as an advocate for things that weren't on the public's radar.

As the newspaper business model heads south, though, we've been subjected to the rise of what we might christen the "trollumnist" — the writer who simply "trolls" in a multichannel, multimedia environment. And the erstwhile self-identification of papers like the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian as quality outlets matters little in the attention economy: on the internet, no one knows you're a broadsheet. Whereas a true columnist might make controversial arguments or challenge common sense, trollumnists merely provoke outrage in order to sell papers, draw links and capture increasingly scarce reader attention. The beauty of it all is that it doesn't take much training to do it, and as media content goes, it's cheap as chips. Any fool can offend people given a reasonably prominent platform.

Take Miranda Devine from the Sydney Morning Herald. In recent months, she's fatuously provoked a range of groups in the community, from dog owners to offal eaters to Facebook users, and managed to imply that all of these diverse groups drink too many cafe lattes.

This week, she had a shot at cyclists. Generalising from a single incident, Devine claimed cyclists were a menace to poor old motorists. "The road", she wrote "is not there to share. Roads are built for cars." She sees it as an undeclared civil war, where "hostilities were fed by the lies told by the Government and the RTA, which gave cyclists unreasonable expectations and ideas above their station." And naturally, there's a conspiracy afoot: "The ideologues who have fostered the road-sharing lie must think a few dead cyclists and pedestrians are a small price to pay for getting cars off the road, because that is their ultimate aim: to make driving so unpleasant, slow, expensive and fraught with hazards that motorists give up."

Devine can string a sentence together, so one must credit her with a degree of intelligence. She would know as well as anyone else that this is arrant nonsense. It's ineffably arrogant, and makes no real policy proposal except "cyclists should get out of the way". If there's a large audience out there who soberly and genuinely endorses this brand of ressentiment, it is, as Glen Fuller points out an audience that appreciates appeals "to brute physical force as trumping an ethics of (road) sharing when it works to their advantage".

But really, Devine's column isn't there to express a view shared by real people, but rather to disagree with a particular group. The column is aimed at cyclists, and those who are prepared to get angry on their behalf. Anyone who — like Devine — uses Twitter will have seen the outrage cranking up as soon as the column was posted. Along with the expressions of anger come links to the online version of the column, where metrics are collected and advertising hosted. In a fragmented media marketplace augmented by real-time social media, networked irritation drives traffic. Devine's columns look more and more like linkbaiting, pure and simple.

She's not the only one, of course. One of my least favourite writers is Catherine Deveny, also with Fairfax. Deveny claims both to be left wing and a humourist, but I can't see that she's either. (Perhaps it's a Melbourne thing?) Deveny's schtick is to leverage her own allegedly humble origins to put shit on "bogans" for the entertainment of The Age's middle class audience, which sounds like the opposite of anything I'd want to define as progressive. She is, as a friend put it to me, "prolifically mean", mocking the sensibilities of anyone with the bad sense to live beyond the extent of the tram lines. Last week she went to Chadstone and poured scorn on suburban people, without basis except that their habits of leisure and consumption are distasteful to her.

Her work is intellectually, morally and politically barren, but importantly, it gets a reaction, with social media and blogs pointing traffic in her direction with each lazy, offensive column she issues forth. I'm one of the worst offenders, regularly, exasperatedly linking to her work when I read it. It only recently occured to me, as one of my own comments cascaded out through friends on Twitter, that however incrementally, I was increasing the size of her audience.

It's not just Fairfax, of course — in News Limited's broadsheet, The Australian, for trollumnists like Janet Albrechtsen or David Burchell, one regularly gets the sense that the content of any particular piece is far less important than axe-griding, and the blunt provocation that gets the bloggers fuming and the tweets ricocheting around the tubes.

It's a dead cert, of course, that all this is going to get worse. The key reason for this is that there are policy analysts, opinion writers and even humourists in Australia's blogosphere who run rings around all of the writers I've named, and do so for free. Real news takes time and money to produce, and there's less time and money available in the newspaper industry than ever before. In the absence of a compelling online mainstream media product, trollumnists can look like they're helping. Offending people will get eyeballs, and given that mainstream media outlets still have reach, with the addition of real-time social networking platforms, you can gather what looks like an audience reliably and quickly. Of course, the problem is that at the same time they're pulling people in, little by little they're damaging the brand.

As media consumers and producers, what can we do about the trollumnist? I have to say that I am personally in a bit of a bind, recognising that the sort of stuff they say on the platforms that they have shouldn't go unchallenged, but also that every link to the latest outrage is merely encouraging bad behaviour.

Meanwhile, attempts to get around that trap, to appeal directly to the outlets, seem to keep failing. I'm not sure how many more times we can tell media organisations that the way to bring us back and keep us is to offer a reliable source of accurate, timely and fair reportage and analysis.

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Scott Bridges
Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 12:45

I suppose at some point it will become clear to somebody who matters in these organisations that quick-hit stats spikes are not equal to building a long-term loyal readership. If I was an advertiser I know which audience I'd rather pay for.

Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 13:14

Was Hinch trolling his own show when he claimed Graham Kennedy died AIDS?

Tom McLoughlin
Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 13:23

Good line about cheap jack provocations. It's very exploitative.

One week after Devine's tub thump - likely financial conflict of real estate interest as high paid writer - about pool fencing and fines up to $5,500, I got a picture in the local neighbourhood of a disastrously dangerous broken pool fence with child's play set 5 metres away, and visible and open to the street.

Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 18:22

Its like the scene in Howard Stern movie when they are discussing his listeners. the people who like him listen to him, to se what he's going to say next. And the people who hate him, listen to him, to se what he's going to say.

And this is def. the model SMH has taken, your right, they want readers/viewers any which way. Who loses is of course the person who should really be writing the article that has something more than incendiary hateful words miranda uses. SMH's decline has become somewhat rapid of late.

Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 20:59

While I agree with most of this, I thought Catherine Deveny's column poured scorn on Chadstone, not the people.

Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 22:29

At first I thought "trollumnist" meant they're trolls, i.e. live under bridges and are a few tinnies short of a slab. Works either way.

It was happening well before the social networks. e.g. Paddy McGuinness and his ilk. Well, some of them probably couldn't help themselves, but their editors surely knew what they were doing and why.

The only remedy, I'm afraid, is to stay away from them. I stopped looking at the Australian long ago, because it's not really a newspaper, it's a propaganda rag.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. PaulRobert
Posted Monday, November 2, 2009 - 23:31

"Trollumnist", he he he, very clever.

@maldamkar: It's not just the SMH, the Age has declined just as far, just as fast. And if you take out the ads, advertorials, op-ed pieces, PR fluff, there's not enough news to wrap your fish and chips in.

@lv3998: Nup, I'm with Jason. Deveny's entire shtick seems to be "Bogans! God they're funny. But it's ok to laugh at them 'cos I used to be one!" But I don't know that she's a trollumnist rather than just a nasty piece of work. Devine, Albrechtsen, Burchell, even Bolt - they write deliberately for the outrage. Deveny actually thinks she's funny.

Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 09:30

Have you noticed a pattern where some right wing wack job in the US comes out with an unproven slur then it makes it around to Australia to be regurgitated and barely Australianised? Too lazy to create their own lies and distortions.

Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 10:20

hi mate, who are these policy analysts opinion writers and comedians on the internet who run rings around the newspaper writers? And if they're so great, how come no one wants to pay them?

David Hollier
Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 11:32

Thanks for that wrap Jason. So now the next step: a mass boycott of all those trollumnists. Resist the urge to wallow in futile outrage by NOT clicking on the story, even...especially when the headline gets you fuming. Remember, every click is support and advertising dollars. Resist!

Dr David Horton
Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 11:55

Cubby, I assume Jason was referring to me. And after my piece critical of the less than divine Miranda appears next month I will be even more famous. See I have a cunning plan. If Miss Devine gets famous by insulting groups and individuals, then I can get even more famous by insulting her, and watching when all of her traffic turns, like a herd of angry bees, and aims unerringly at my blog.

Wonky Funkfart
Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 12:13

I agree with David Hollier, unless your a masochist why would you even bother to read the inflammatory articles these shock jocks spew out just to rile the latte sippers!

I don't even drink coffee, but I avoid Divine, cos I know she'll piss me off and I don't want to give her the satisfaction of my "click".

As a friend once told me "who needs facts when your Divine!"

Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 15:22

I agree with this article. Fairfax are on a suicidal path by treating with the contempt the demographic that would most likely to remain loyal to it if only it would retain a modicum of quality.

Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 15:44

Most columnists are men, but you have singled out three women. I suppose Andrew Bolt has been done to death but there are plenty more where he comes from (and elsewhere).

michael r james
Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 15:57

mr james
"what can we do about the trollumnist?"
It is relatively simple. Don't read them or visit their websites. But Deveny is genuinely funny while Planet Janet and Devine are pointless ideologically-driven toxic garbage. Some people say that one has to read them to know what these types (neo-conservatives?) are thinking and what poison they are spreading but for me at least it became too wearisome. For about 15 months I have been on a diet of choice, avoiding all that processed fat and sugar from Devine, PlanetJ and A.Blot. ( I record Insiders but fast forward past Blot where possible. After reading about Annabel Crabb's University of East Bumcrack err, crack in the press, I replayed that segment last night. It was kind of interesting to see how defensive Blot can get when his aggressive nonsense finally wears down the patience of mostly very even-tempered people like Crabb and George Megalgenis (who also had a crack at Blot on Insiders a while back).
These people crave attention. Do not give it to them.

Posted Tuesday, November 3, 2009 - 16:04

Here's a hypothesis: Many of the editorial higher-ups at Fairfax hate having to print trollumnist agitprop (online or offline), but the gloomy future of the once-proud media giants (as forecast, e.g., by the few-years-ahead decline of US papers) forces their hands.

The very same factors are behind the vapid, news-o-tainment-heavy websites of the SMH, Age, etc.; dropping profits instill desperation in the executive ranks, which are populated with "business leaders" who know nothing about journalism or aging journalists who don't entirely get the internet.

They're looking for instant results, not good, sustainable results that would take time to implement if they are to properly address the massive shift in the way culture is consumed. Thus they love Miranda Devine and they love the page view bonanza that her columns (and wire stories about celebrity shenanigans) usher in.

This comes to the dismay, one would hope, of the editorial ranks, who increasingly have to deal with content (there's an interesting word!) that is an insult to the journalistic principles to which they once aspired.

dave richards
Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 00:22

Dave Richards
I'm actually amazed that anyone reads your stuff.

dave richards
Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 00:25

Sorry, make that:
Jason Williams
I’m actually amazed that anyone reads your stuff.
No-one reads my stuff because I don't burden people with thousands of words complaining about other writers as you do.

Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 10:29

I think that Jason Williams is annoying too, Dave.

Cubby - there's lots of examples I could give. But here's a few.
For good political analysis coming from a right-of-centre perspective, which doesn't go in for Miranda's link-baiting nonsense, try
http://andrewelder.blogspot.com or Graham Young's posts at http://ambit-gambit.nationalforum.com.au
For really great analysis of polling and the numbers game of politics, try Possum over at http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics - he's pretty well unmatched in the MSM except possibly for George Megalogenis IMHO.

There are loads of economists out there too, who provide much more astute commentary than most business journos - I won't provide a forest of links here, but you can follow a fair few links to them from Possum's blog.

As to why no one's willing to pay for them - that's putting the cart before the horse slightly - they don't charge, and increasingly people are unwilling to pay for what's in the papers either. What I'm suggesting is that if newspapers stuck to their onions while attempting to adapt to the web, they'd retain a loyal audience. The kind of rubbish I talk about in the article just doesn't add value.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. deconst
Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 10:35

Because it involves trolls, maybe it needs a 4chan style reaction?

Trollumnists: the cancer that's killing /print/ - that's practically a t-shirt in itself!

Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 11:50

I too find Jason Williams annoying. And I echo Dave Richards sentiments regarding Dave Richards.

Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 13:39

hi jason, thank you for replying and posting those links too.
Im not an expert on the web commentary community so i admit i dont know who's who.
I looked at these links but i think they have the problem of being a bit too earnest. I cant see them working as commentators for a wider audience than a niche readership.
So when we're saying there are much better commentators on the web, its really comparing apples and oranges in my opinion. They are writing for a different crowd.
But i do think that if someone on the internet is doing something special in terms of writing or commentary then sooner or later they will be offered a paid job doing it, unless for some personal or ideological reason they don't want to be paid.

Dr David Horton
Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 13:48

"unless for some personal or ideological reason they don’t want to be paid" - well, I certainly have no objections, and as Samuel Johnson once said ...

Posted Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 14:12

Cubby - perhaps you're right, but there must be better ways to draw a large audience than just attempting to piss people off. I think that's my main point here - I think the trollumnist strategy is not a long-term solution to any of the difficulties mass media outlets are currently having, and it may make things worse.

Posted Thursday, November 5, 2009 - 01:39

"I looked at these links but i think they have the problem of being a bit too earnest. "

A common problem for online writers. It's the number one criticism of me, for instance.

Posted Thursday, November 5, 2009 - 15:28

Yeah fair enough. I just dont think columnists are "just trying to piss people off" as part of a strategy to draw in readers and sell papers etc.
For this to be true, you would expect there to be an increase in shrillness if circulations fall. Whereas the writers you named have been doing what they do for quite a few years now.
I don't think its part of a strategy, i think they write what they believe in and there's a large slab of readership that generally agrees with them.

Posted Friday, November 6, 2009 - 12:41

I really wish these 'trolls' were 'advocates for things that weren't on the public radar', but the only one who comes close to being that and an honest evaluator of back-burning issues, is Phillip Adams.
At least he regularly has a go at the cultural cringe that reflects our drug policy.
Most of the others just dredge up the polemic in arguments and use offensive stereo-type and over generalisation to insult their readers. Why they're still read at all is the burning question.
And anger may not be the real reason people read on.
Instead it is likely to be "Can this writer shock or offend people and still make me either believe or question whatever else they're writing about?"
When it should be "Can this writer inform me, or change my opinion about something in an entertaining way without insulting anyone?"
But that's the new age attitude to the media, which demands general infotainment (troll) writers, a large step away from the well researched and balanced facts of top class journalists.
Because not everyone has a head for facts and figures, these 'trolls' fill a niche market for the more emotionally charged and intellectually challenged literates in our society who probably grew up mostly reading comics and watching cartoons.

Mulga Mumblebrain
Posted Monday, November 9, 2009 - 18:14

I'm afraid I see something far more sinister in the proliferation of Rightwing propagandists throughout the media. We must never ignore the fact that 90% or so of newspaper columnists, talk-back 'shock-jocks' and TV 'commentators' are of the Right, the majority of the Hard Right. A few are of the 'centre' and real socialists, Marxists, anarchists are entirely absent. Any society where the likes of Phillip Adams is furiously denounced by the rabid Right as a 'Leftist' is beyond parody.
We know from experience or perhaps from reading Chomsky and Herman or numerous other theorists, that our media system, owned as it is entirely by the business class, operates as a propaganda and indoctrination system. We see it every day in the narrow range of acceptable opinion, nowhere more poignant than in the Israel/Palestinian conflict, where the coverage is 90% plus pro-Israel, often ludicrously so, and the Palestinian side is restricted to the collaborationists of Fatah. The election that returned Hamas to power, entirely democratic, has been air-brushed from history.
The purpose of the indoctrination system is to make a different world unthinkable. Only our system of elite rule by an hereditary, parasitic, kleptocratic elite, laughable called 'freedom', is acceptable. Sham elections between identical parties, entirely controlled by business, is 'democracy'. The public must be brainwashed incessantly lest thought crime arise. Scapegoats must be concocted to draw the heat off the real culprits, so we get endless hate and fearmongering campaigns against unionists, welfare recipients, Aborigines, Moslems, gays, 'greenies'-anyone with any idea that might threaten elite dominance. Moreover the tone of virulent abuse that characterises this Rightwing propagandising is no accident. Certainly the type that succeeds as a Rightwing media propagandist are usually personally nasty, intemperate and rage-filled, but the active divisions they work on fomenting in society are part of a 'strategy of tension', where groups are set against each other in order to make controlling society all the easier. 'Divide and rule' is practised as much within capitalist societies as it is in colonial states like Israel. Where it reaches its end-point is in crises like the current global ecological collapse, where the urgent action needed to save humanity, which requires active co-operation between all parts of society, becomes impossible because the Right is determined to prevent action, to protect their vested economic interests and to fight another jihad against the despised 'Left' and environmentalism.

Posted Monday, March 15, 2010 - 20:14

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Posted Sunday, April 22, 2012 - 18:30

Dr Wilson just trolled me by tweeting a link to this article without saying it's from '09. Well played, sir.

My other sigblock is intelligent