There’s too much content and it will kill us all

Content is the next dot-com bubble. One day, there will be too many websites that aggregate — steal the work of real reporters and riff pithy on it — and prostitute for clicks while producing little or no original work. Websites using this model already mimic each other, each claiming to redefine the way man, usually Millennial man, consumes news while shouting the same stuff into the digital ether.

Compare the mission statements of these two websites, one is yet to exist and one does exist. It would seem like there can be only so many ways to reinvent the dissemination of news.

Gigaom just went under because it couldn’t pay its investors. Other websites like it may follow. Too many people are doing the same thing, writing about the same thing, and too few people aren’t making the extra phone call. Or any phone calls.

This is just a conspiracy theory — although this New York Times article about the death of Gigaom supports it — but there can be Internet saturation. Look at the aforementioned dot-com bubble. In the early 2000s, upstart Internet companies, many named e-Something, suffered mass death. They reached critical mass and supernova’ed. Amazon and eBay are notable survivors. Outpost.com, unfortunately, was not. This commercial is still funny.

A similar fate feels plausible for websites predicated on content-generating and click-bait, websites that live at the pleasure of investors — websites notorious for click-bait and dumbing down the obvious.

Content websites are a reaction to newspapers’ failure to monetize the Internet. They court, often without pang of shame or conscience, the click. Content is anything and there are no rules. This is the start of aggregation and native advertising.

Original reporting is hard, time-consuming and, ultimately, not conducive to click maximization. This model produces finite amounts of content, and thus, finite amounts of clicks. Reporters can do only so much when their stories require primary sources. They wait for returned emails and phone calls. This can take days — days that pass without fresh content.

Click-sites got around this by skipping the hard part (original reporting). They hire a sweatshop worth of writers (contract freelancers who get no healthcare or vacation) to produce an unending volley of ephemera. This model is quantity over quality and, at the moment, it’s lucrative, certainly more so than the old newspaper model of the e-subscription. As music and porn have taught us, if it’s on the Internet, it must be free.

The problem with this model is that, unless a website does something innovative — like BuzzFeed, a behemoth which would likely survive a content holocaust — it’s too easy and, by extension, too hard to stand out. There can be only so many takes written about the new Avengers trailer, or Obama’s plan to fix to the student-debt crisis, by writers with no expertise. This is the dissolution of beats.

Content generators are masters of nothing, and this makes them, at best, unreliable, and at worst, unbelievable. This applies equally to those re-reporting news stories and those writing columns off reported news. Columnists are columnists because they have knowledge. Without that, they’re opinionists and no better than me, a guy just writing crap on the Internet. (In my defense, I do have industry experience, spending seven-plus years as a newspaper reporter.)

The news website of the future likely will be a mixture of the three models — reporting, content generation and native advertising — existing in lovely balance. BuzzFeed, with its hiring of real journalists, seems to have figured this out and is already moving in that direction.

But there can be only so much of the same thing before that thing eats itself and natural selection ensues. Any putz can have an uninformed hot take on climate change, Jupiter Ascending, or who George R.R. Martin just killed. And that’s the problem.

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