The Axios Turing test and the heat death of the journalistic universe

I was wasting some time on the internet and came across some Palko bait from the website Axios: “Elon Musk says Boring Company’s first tunnel to open in December,” with an awesome quote from this linked post:

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has unveiled a video of his Boring Company’s underground tunnel that will soon offer Los Angeles commuters an alternative mode of transportation in an effort to escape the notoriously clogged highways of the city.

The only thing that could top this would be a reference to Netflix. . . . Hey, wait a minute! Let’s google *axios netflix*. Here’s what we find:

The bottom line: Most view Netflix’s massive spending as reckless, but Ball argues it isn’t if you consider how it’s driving an unprecedented growth that could eventually allow Netflix to surpass Facebook in engagement and Pay-TV in penetration. At that point, they will have the leverage to increase prices, bringing them closer to profitability and making the massive spend worthwhile.


See, for example, here:

At this point, I’d imagine most of our regular readers are getting fairly burned out on the Hyperloop. I more than sympathize. In terms of technology, infrastructure, transportation, and public policy, we’ve pretty much exhausted the topic.

The one area, however, where the Hyperloop remain somewhat relevant, is as an example of certain dangerous journalistic trends, such as the tendency to ignore red flags, warnings that there’s something wrong with the story as being presented be it lies or faulty data were simply a fundamental misunderstanding. . . . One of the major causes of this dysfunction is the willingness to downplay or even completely ignore massive warning signs. . . .

and here:

What does Netflix really want? To make sense of the company’s approach toward original content, it is useful to think in terms of long-term IP value vs the hype-genic, those programs that lend themselves to promotion by being awards friendly or newsworthy. . . . If Netflix really is playing the wildly ambitious, extremely long term game that forms the basis for the company’s standard narrative and justifies incredible amounts of money investors are pouring in, then this distribution makes no sense whatsoever. If, on the other hand, the company is simply trying to keep the stock pumped up until they can find a soft landing spot, it makes all the sense in the world.


Of course, Palko could be wrong in his Musk and Netflix skepticism. Palko’s been banging this drum for awhile—he’s been skeptical about these guys since way before it was fashionable—but that doesn’t make him right. Who knows? I’m no expert on tunneling or TV.

What’s really relevant for our discussion here is that an uncredentialed blogger working on zero budget can outperform a 30 million dollar media juggernaut. Even if Palko’s getting it wrong, he’s putting some thought into it, giving us a better read and more interesting content than Axios’s warmed-over press releases.

On one hand, this is an inspiring case of the little guy offering better content than the well-funded corporation. From the other direction, it’s a sad story that Axios has this formula for getting attention by running press releases, while I suspect that most of the people who read Palko only do so because they happen to be bored one day and decide to click though our blogroll—and then are so bored that they click on the site labeled Observational Epidemiology (perhaps the only blog title that’s more dry than Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science).

An Axios Turing test

But there’s also this which I noticed from the wikipedia article on Axios:

The company earned more than $10 million in revenue in its first seven months, primarily with native advertising that appears in between stories.

“Native advertising” . . . what’s that? I’ll look that up:

Native advertising is a type of advertising, mostly online, that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. In many cases, it manifests as either an article or video, produced by an advertiser with the specific intent to promote a product, while matching the form and style which would otherwise be seen in the work of the platform’s editorial staff.

Hey! This would explain the Musk and Netflix stories. Why is Axios running press releases that could damage its reputation as a news source? Because it’s “native advertising.” Sure, it might hurt their journalistic reputation, but by the same token it could help their reputation as an ad site, as it demonstrates their willingness to run press releases as if they’re actual news stories.

By running these press releases, Axios is either demonstrating its credulity or demonstrating its willingness to print what its sponsors want to be printed. Either of these traits could be considered a plus for an ad site.

And this brings us to the Native Content Turing Test. Once your news feed contains native advertising, you have the challenge of figuring out which stories are real and which are sponsored. The better the native advertising is, the harder it will be to tell the difference, leading to a Platonic ideal in which all the ads read like news stories and all the news stories read like press releases. A sort of journalistic equivalent of the heat death of the universe, in which every story contains exactly zero bits of new information.

P.S. The last paragraph above was a joke. Apparently native advertising must be labeled in some way. According to wikipedia:

The most common practices of these are recognizable by understated labels, such as “Advertisement”, “Ad”, “Promoted”, “Sponsored”, “Featured Partner”, or “Suggested Post” in subtitles, corners, or the bottoms of ads.

I found no such identifiers in the two Axios articles above, which suggest they are not advertising but rather are just business-as-usual news articles from an organization with $30 million to burn but no time to do much more than run press releases on these particular topics.

But, again, they win: they get the clicks. And I suppose that the bland ad-like content makes the site safe for native advertising: In an environment of touched-up press releases, an actual ad doesn’t stand out in any awkward way.

The post The Axios Turing test and the heat death of the journalistic universe appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.


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