Digital Media

Is Watermelon the Future of Journalism?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

A month ago, two BuzzFeed journalists set a watermelon on the table in the middle of their newsroom and started putting rubber bands around the center of the fruit to make it explode. They recorded it and ran the video on Facebook Live with the title, “Watch us explode this watermelon one rubber band at a time!”

“According to Facebook, more people tuned in at the same time to watch it live than any other video. At its peak toward the end of its 45-minute runtime, the broadcast had 807,000 viewers all watching at the same time. That’s more people than live in Alaska, and just slightly fewer than live in San Francisco. Currently, the broadcast has more than 5 million total views,” BuzzFeed reported on its web site. The video later racked up more than 10 million views.

The first observation that the New York Times made on this media event was sarcastic: “Traditional journalists everywhere saw themselves as the seeds, flying out of the frame. How do we compete with that? And if that’s the future of news and information, what’s next for our democracy? President Kardashian?”

However, while that comment may have been sarcastic, with Trump running for president, we are not that far away from the Kardashians doing the same.

But it is important to note that BuzzFeed and the New York Times both belong to a group of paid media partners of Facebook Live. In other words, Mark Zuckerberg pays them to use it, and over the last month, the Times has made decisive steps in learning how to better use Facebook Live, Digiday reports.

Yet when the watermelon exploded, the Times joined the debate about digital media with a bit of nostalgia:

Grandkids: It was not so long ago — oh, say, five, maybe six years — that traditional news organizations like this one could laugh at BuzzFeed’s gag along with everyone else, smugly secure. An exploding watermelon was just an exploding watermelon.

These days, however, news articles — be they about war, voting rights, the arts or immigration policy — increasingly inhabit social media feeds like the frighteningly dominant one that Facebook runs. They are competing for attention against zany kitchen experiments; your friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah; and that wild video of a train whipping through a ridiculously narrow alleyway in Thailand.

After watching the fruiticide, I noticed a Twitter post by the freelance journalist Erik Malinowski that read, “the watermelon … is us,” and sighed.

You do not have to be a big media organization to use real-time analytics. The tools are there, available to everyone. I know how many people are reading Yonder, what kind of devices and sites they are using, and how long readers are sticking with a single piece.

The right use of metrics is one of the prevailing discussions in newsrooms across the globe, and there is some cause for concern, as Jim Rutenberg points out in his New York Times piece:  

What do not necessarily rate well, however, are the (often important if sometimes unsexy) articles about yesterday’s doings — or, non doings — at the Federal Election Commission, or the latest federal budget fight.

Those drier articles may not score in the ratings, but they can lead to the bigger ones. Watergate started as a story about a burglary. The wide-ranging sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that The Boston Globe exposed — captured in the movie “Spotlight” — began as a 700-word column about a single priest.

Once ratings come into the picture, will reporters still want to pursue those smaller stories? And will their editors, who once called these stories “spinach,” want to publish them?

The answer from Mr. Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, and like-minded news executives is yes, but it’s incumbent upon news organizations to do a better job with them — make them shorter and more distinctive, with data and striking visual presentation.

Understood. All I’m asking is that we be careful not to lose too many core values on our way to the future. Otherwise, it’s watermelon flambé at the Kardashian inauguration, and yes, we’re the watermelon.

Are we really done? Has digital media already exploded our heads? Is what little that’s left of our brains ready to migrate to Facebook, which not only picks and chooses what will get published, but what will be the trending content across the channels of the $350 billion behemoth?

Henry Blodget, the co-founder of Business Insider, is not that pessimistic:

Wrapping rubber bands around a watermelon is not journalism. It is entertainment. But the key to success in media has always been a broad mix of serious reporting and entertainment. The New York Times does not make its money on reports about Iraq and Syria. It makes money on its gardening section, food and, yes, stories about cats. “The Today Show” is a very successful program because it is a mix of the celebrity chef and the crazy pet who does the rolls and serious news and interviews. …

In the new world of digital there are no must-read publications any more.

Even if you work in finance and live in London, Blodget says, you no longer have to read the Financial Times, which is, “a wonderful publication, as is the Wall Street Journal and many others. But the new generation is consuming media fundamentally differently. At Business Insider, we have the chance to embrace that wholeheartedly. We do not have a print legacy, digital is not our second business behind a newspaper. It is our only one.”

The news industry is no longer at a crossroads. We are already out on the open digital ocean, where many more news organizations will drown. As Jim VandeHei says, “journalists are killing journalism by stubbornly clinging to the old ways.” They’ll produce 50 competing but nearly identical stories about a presidential candidate’s latest speech, or 700-word updates on the transportation budget negotiations. Survival, Mr. VandeHei says, depends on giving readers what they really want, how they want it.

I have no opinion on watermelon explosions, aside from the fact that I would simply not waste 45 minutes of my time to watch something like that. Besides, BuzzFeed did nothing but copy what two dudes in England did four years ago.

The world is rolling ahead. Just a few days ago, almost 100 million viewers cracked up as one Texas mom bought a Star Wars Chewbacca mask and showed it off on Facebook in her own unique way. I was part of that crowd.  

But would you watch a 29-minute-long video that the NYPD recorded while destroying dozens of confiscated dirt bikes? I still can’t figure out why the NYPD joined the digital ocean, but luckily, there is always a shorter version of all such bits of nonsense out there.

Also published on Medium.

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