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.