Truth vs. traffic: An age-old battle

I know there’s probably been enough sturm und drang about Fred Wilson’s post on journabloggers and Mike Arrington’s response, in which he calls Fred “hypocritical, wrong and conflicted,” but there’s an undercurrent behind the furore that I’ve been thinking about a fair bit. Tony Hung puts his finger on it in this post, and Andy Beard mentions it in his as well. It’s the old “truth vs. traffic” dilemma, and while bloggers like to think that it was invented by the Web, it’s probably as old as journalism itself.

To recap: Tony says that Mike is using a blog/nerd fight to his advantage for traffic reasons, and that when TechCrunch or any other blog is controversial, they win (i.e., they get linked high on Techmeme and they get more traffic as a result). Mike also says in a comment on his own post that:

“we’ve found that the “hits” – the blog posts that generate a lot of discussion – are the ones that drive all stats, including, indirectly, monetization. The problem is knowing what’s a hit and what isn’t before it actually happens.”

and in a comment on Fred’s post:

“here’s a secret – a lot of what we write about generates the traffic. And every day I sneak in a bunch of posts about startups that get the benefit of that traffic.”

Mike also told me last year — when I interviewed him as part of a mesh conference keynote — that he always wants to be first, because if he’s not first then “it’s a lot more work.” Does that mean he is willing to jump into print with something quickly even if he hasn’t pinned it down 100 per cent? He admitted that it does (although he also made the point that trust must be gained over time, and can be easily lost).

But in making that admission, and talking about traffic as a motivator, all Mike is really doing is admitting to the same impulse that newspaper editors have been driven by for the past 100 years or so. In fact, the early days of newspapers — when there were hundreds of scandal sheets and political bully-pulpit rags pushing their respective biases — resembled nothing so much as the current state of the blogosphere.

That tradition continues today with tabloids like the New York Post and the Daily Mail in the UK, and with blogs like TMZ and PerezHilton.com. Got a hot rumour? Print it first, ask questions later. Even reputable newspapers can fall prey to that impulse: I remember a story that hit the front pages of dozens of British papers (as well as my own paper) about a guy who made custom wooden gibbets for hanging prisoners, and claimed to have sold them to various African despots.

It was a great story — except that it turned out to be complete fiction. Did we or the other papers check it out before printing it? Sure. But maybe we didn’t check quite as hard as we might have, because it was such a great story. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not comparing Mike Arrington to a tabloid or a scandal sheet or anything of the sort. I’m just saying that the quest for traffic, and the tension between that and “the truth,” is not a new one invented by the blogosphere. It goes on all around us.

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