When the Detroit News decided to make a click-tastic slideshow of The 50 Most Beautiful WAGS In Sports, the blogosphere responded with some WAGging of its own — mostly of tongues. Nearly everybody agreed that there was something deeply saddening and pathetic about the fact that a semi-respected Old News bastion is now using Google Image Search and one-click-per-picture tactics to puff up the numbers. Some of the strongest criticism, however, came from a most unlikely source.
In a piece entitled Oh God The Detroit News Is Trying To Be Buzzfeed Now, Contributor Aaron Foley opines that
But a countdown, click-through list of most beautiful wives and girlfriends of athletes? NO. Really? It shouldn’t have come to this. I get that Buzzfeed is popular because they have lists and Complex always does clicky slideshow shit like this, but they have that lane. Don’t merge into that lane. It’s their lane. And frankly, it works for them.
This all sounds perfectly reasonable, and you’re likely to nod your head along with it, until you realize that Mr. Foley is writing for a blog that ran a picture of Steve McQueen’s penis.
The stage is being set for an epic showdown between old media and new media, for sure, but it’s not going to pan out quite the way the script-writers at Gawker et al planned it. Some time ago, in a piece about a similar episode of Jalopnik news-ethics outrage, I wrote that
It’s the Connery-in-The-Untouchables approach. They put a picture of a Ferrari on the cover? You put a picture of a crashed Ferrari on the website. They declare the Chevy Sonic to be the best car ever? You do the same, plus run a story on a guy driving an electric scooter on the freeway.
Now, let me show you Jack’s Foolproof Chart Of What Young Male Readers Like, from Least to Most:
Detailed reliability data
Sophisticated, knowledgeable automotive testing
Fun stories about stuff
Stories where something blows up
Pictures of cool stuff
Pictures of stuff blowing up
An article about girls doing slutty things
Mugshots of girls who have done slutty things
A girl talking about having the “back of her eyeballs” knocked out by some dude raw-doggin’ her in a hallway
A picture of the above
A video of the above
A video of the above, with two guys
A video of the above, with two guys and a dog
A video of the above, with two guys, a dog, and a tight-ass dubstep soundstrack
You get the idea, right? It’s always possible to increase viewership by moving farther down the list. Jalopnik is farther down the list than Car and Driver, but that doesn’t mean they get to cry “Hold!” at the Mugshots of girls who have done slutty things level. Somebody’s gonna take it farther.
I was right about that, but what I failed to discuss was that Jalopnik (and TTAC, and Buzzfeed, and everyone else) aren’t just under attack from new bloggers trying to out-slut or out-snark us. We’re also seeing an increasing willingness on the part of the stodgy old media to do whatever it takes to compete. Motor Trend, which prior to the year 2010 was only remembered by anyone for its earnest and tireless advocacy on behalf of the Chevrolet Citation, now operates the biggest automotive-related video channel in the world.
Think about that. The lamest, oldest, unhippest car magazine out there also runs the newest, freshest, biggest, most popular video channel. How did that happen? It’s simple: while the other car magazines and newspapers were coasting on their assets, MT worked to develop, borrow, or imitate things that the viewer wanted to see. They didn’t depend on the name or the pre-existing reader base. Instead, they used that reader base as a launch platform, a list of potential evangelicals who, if they were presented with content they enjoyed, would spread the word to others.
If you think that kind of approach — the reader-base-as-seed-capital approach — only works for a YouTube channel, you’re wrong. Mark my words: Any day now, somebody at Car and Driver is going to decide to attack the Web at full speed. They’ll put the whole magazine on there in expanded format. They’ll create a top-notch user comment system and update it on Internet time. They’ll leverage their million-plus readers to get ten-million-plus Web readers. They’ll decide to do to Jalopnik, and to TTAC, what Jalopnik did to them five years ago.
If they do so, they will succeed. If. If they have the will, the guts, and the intelligence to see it through. If they treat it like they are a start-up that happens to be lucky enough to have two million clients banging on the door. If they apply the same kind of original thinking that led to the creation of the original Car and Driver to the creation of the next one. The phoenix that rises from those particular ashes won’t look much like the current magazine does, any more than MT‘s YouTube channel looks like a four-color Chevrolet Citation advertorial, but it will succeed. Mark my words.
Aaron Foley is right. The Detroit News can’t, and shouldn’t, try to compete with Buzzfeed by running the occasional poorly-thought-out slideshow. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t eat a lot of lunches by changing direction before circumstances force them to abandon ship. Ooh. Abandon ship. I like that phrase. Let’s roll with it. In that context, Mr. Foley’s column shouldn’t be seen as sour grapes or misguided whining. It should be seen as a warning shot across the bow. A warning shot that the Detroit News would do well to respond to, not by turning away, but by firing a full broadside.
Correction: Aaron Foley is a contributor, not the Detroit Editor as previously mentioned. -Ed.