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The most popular stuff on the web isn't journalism and that's fine

Andrew Marantz has an entertaining and informative profile of Emerson Spartz, the entrepreneur behind Dose.com, a successful viral Facebook aggregation shop. It's a great piece that provides a lot of important insights into the evolving media landscape.

But it's marred, as a lot of recent media commentary is, by a desire to contrast emerging Facebook hits with the Glorious Values of Real Journalism. The whole thing reads a bit as if the New Yorker told John Connor to write a profile of Skynet. Marantz goes out of his way to draw a contrast between Dose's rise and the New York Times' struggles to make the transition to a digital universe. Many journalists who read the piece have tweeted reactions that make it clear the story is being read in an ominous way. Dose is not only successful, it's allegedly threatening to the values all serious people hold dear.

These kind of scare stories about Real Journalism In The Digital Age miss some fundamental realities about media. It's absolutely true that digital distribution, Facebook sharing, and web aggregation are changing journalism. But looking at the explosive traffic of a site like Dose doesn't tell us anything useful about how those changes are playing out or why. The success of Dose simply goes to show something we should have known all along — entertainment is more popular than journalism.

Here are three reasons why.

1) Most media isn't journalism and never has been

Profiles of successful but not-really-journalism websites generally have a shocked tone about the discovery that people are reading stuff that isn't Real Journalism. But journalism has always been only one part of the media mix — and a distinctly minority part.

On network television there are many more hours of the day dedicated to entertainment and sports programming than to news, and there always have been. On cable, there are many more sports and entertainment channels than news stations, and there always have been. The radio is dominated by sports and music, not news. Documentary films exist, but they're far less popular than action-packed blockbusters or laugh-a-minute comedies, and they always have been. Detective thrillers, romance novels, and self-help books outsell longform nonfiction on weighty subjects and always have. Among magazine periodicals, People and TV Guide and Cosmo always had higher circulations than the Economist.

The lone exception to this trend is the world of daily newspapers. Periodicals printed and distributed on cheap newsprint seven days a week, 365 days a year, are mostly news. Even tabloids on the sillier end of the spectrum, like the New York Post, are much more substantive and newsy than the median fare offered on television, radio, cinema, or book publishing. That digital publishing more closely resembles everything-that's-not-a-newspaper than it does newspapers is an interesting fact about newspapers, not about digital publishing.

2) Newspapers are only partially about journalism

The medium of newspapers is much newsier than any other medium of the past or present. It's even there in the name. Newspaper.

Even so, a typical American newspaper contains an awful lot of stuff that isn't Real Journalism. Newspapers have funny pages, gossip columns, horoscopes, crossword puzzles, recipes, real estate porn, and many other elements that are non-journalistic or quasi-journalistic in nature. This kind of fun and reader service was long integral to the circulation strategy of newspaper publishing companies, just as many successful online journalism enterprises also publish fun stuff and reader service items that are less journalistically ambitious.

3) The web blurs lines

The web breaks down barriers between mediums that were historically distinct. Newspapers distribute their content on the web. So do magazines. So do television stations. Web-native publications in some ways resemble the web-distribution arms of legacy media outlets. Videos combine with text in a way that wasn't true in a world where a TV station was a TV station and a newspaper was a newspaper. The web, in other words, consumes all media.

And if we look at the media landscape, whether digital or analog, we see that journalism has always been a distinct minority of the overall media. Lighter entertainments are dominant, both in volume and in revenue, and always have been. One can find that alarming or banal as one likes, but it's simply not something that is new or in any particular way related to the web.

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