Monthly Archives: January 2015

One of the earliest bloggers reflects on the evolution of the political blogosphere

charles johnson

Whatever your opinion is of Charles Johnson, it’s likely changed at some point in the last decade. The California-based blogger launched Little Green Footballs in 2001, and though it was initially a blog about computer programming, after 9/11 he took a rightward political turn. He was one of the central bloggers in Rathergate, the online investigation that exposed memos featured on 60 Minutes as being possibly fabricated and ultimately led to CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s resignation. The investigation was considered a major turning point for the blogosphere in terms of how it could impact and compete with mainstream news. During the Bush years, Johnson was a steadfast critic of radical Islam and one of the web’s most prominent conservative bloggers, helping to launch an early conservative blog advertising network. Then, quite suddenly, his views shifted to the left, and those conservatives who were once his allies found themselves on the receiving end of his ire. His apostasy was documented at length in a 2010 New York Times Magazine article. I recently interviewed Johnson by phone about his early days in the blogosphere and how the web has evolved with the rise of social media. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Simon Owens: What fascinates me about you is that you were one of the original bloggers. You started very early before people even knew what a blog was. So you had this unique perspective, I think, about the rise of early Web 2.0 and then how it started to transform once more mainstream websites started to launch their own blogs, and then you saw the rise of social media. I’d love to hear about the early days of blogging. What compelled you to start? When did you start realizing you were amassing some kind of regular readership?

Charles Johnson: Well when I started, they didn’t actually have the term “blog” yet. It hadn’t been invented. It was called a web log. It got shortened to blog and originally I was agitating against using that title because I didn’t like it. I guess the reason I got started was because I wanted to learn about the technology of blogging. I’ve always been a computer programmer, and that’s actually why I started doing it, to get some hands-on experience with all this technology.

Simon Owens: Do you remember which bloggers you were reading back then? Like were you a Dave Winer fan back then?

Charles Johnson: Oh gosh, yeah, I was aware of Dave Winer. Who else was blogging really early back then? Not a whole lot of people. I was reading mostly programming blogs. That sort of thing. I’m sure most of those blogs aren’t even around anymore. I go look at those early entries and the links don’t even work anymore.

Simon Owens: And then obviously 9/11 happened and it seemed like it kind of radicalized you in some ways. What was your experience writing right after 9/11? It seems like that’s when people really started to find you.

Charles Johnson: There’s no doubt that I was angry about that, like a lot of people. My reaction to it was to really try to learn as much as possible. As I go back and look at those early days after 9/11, what I was doing was posting all these links to articles about radical Islam. So I was trying to amass as much information as possible. I guess over the years I started to identify with a rightwing anti-Islam movement. Realizing that, being pulled into all that, it’s a long story, but sometimes life takes you down paths that you don’t entirely mean to be on. And there was a point in which I realized that some of the people who I thought were authorities on Islam were actually connected to some very dark kind of forces. So that kind of changed me, and I had a real change of heart about what I was doing. And I started to look back at it all and see it within a different context.

Simon Owens: Do you feel like you had this early-mover advantage? I feel like if you started a blog back then, not every news site was really freely available on the web and there weren’t as many blogs back then, do you think you benefited because there was a dearth of information online after 9/11 and that’s how people found you?

Charles Johnson: Yes, I think that’s probably true. And also the technology wasn’t highly evolved back then. So people who were even capable of setting up a blog were kind of rare. This was right around the time Blogger started to come out, and the whole scene kind of exploded around then. I think what I was doing showed a lot of people that they could do that too.

Simon Owens: How were people finding your blog? Was it people coming in from Google or were there other major websites linking to you?

Charles Johnson: You know, it all just sort of happened. I couldn’t tell you exactly. I think a lot of it did come from Google, people searching for information. And a lot of it was just word of mouth. It really exploded in 2004 when the Dan Rather story broke.

Simon Owens: I’d love to talk about Rathergate. It’s now referenced all the time in that bloggers played a key role, but you were in the thick of it. What was happening on the ground when the report aired? How did it start bubbling up in the blogosphere?

Charles Johnson: Around that time I had started to read other popular blogs, and one of them was Powerline, and they had posted about someone who commented at Free Republic who said those documents on 60 Minutes didn’t look like they were typed on a typewriter. And that piqued my interest. CBS had actually posted the documents on their website and I went and downloaded them — they were in PDF form. I guess the very instant I opened them up they I knew they weren’t type-written. They were done on a computer. So that’s how it began for me.

Simon Owens: I remember there was some delay when the original 60 Minutes episode aired and then 60 Minutes was hedging their bets in terms of how they responded. And then finally Dan Rather finally came out and admitted that he couldn’t stand behind the story. How as the media reacting to you guys?

Charles Johnson: There was a lot of negative reaction, I remember. They didn’t really want to believe it. But like I said, it was obvious they were faked. I knew at the time that they’d eventually come around, but I think it took them about a week.

Simon Owens: Do you feel like that was a big turning point for the blogosphere?

Charles Johnson: Yeah, I do, actually. It legitimized blogging, and you’ll notice that after that a lot of media started incorporating blogs on their sites.

Simon Owens: For a long time after that there was still a lot of debate over the value of blogging. You always heard about these references to bloggers in their pajamas.

Charles Johnson: Which is actually understandable and I don’t blame them. The fact that the barriers to entry were so low, there is going to be a lot of not very good stuff out there. If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people doing this, not all of them are going to be Edward R. Murrow. So I actually understood that negative reaction, but on the other hand a lot of it sort of felt like the old guard trying to keep control of their domain.

Simon Owens: Like they were still convinced this internet thing was a fad or something.

Charles Johnson: Yeah.

Simon Owens: I feel like in the mid-aughts, it got to the point where you saw places like the New York Times launch all these blogs. And then you saw the rise of Twitter and Facebook, and in some ways it completely mainstreamed blogging, because what is Twitter but a form of blogging? Circa 2006 there was this very vibrant blogosphere, and it doesn’t really feel like there’s that kind of conversation going on anymore.

Charles Johnson: I totally agree. The whole thing changed. It began changing right around 2006. Part of it for me is I saw a lot of crazies getting popular. Like nuts. People who believed in conspiracy theories.

Simon Owens: So we saw the results of what journalists were warning of. It brought in the good and bad. You saw the rise of people who would have otherwise been marginalized and wouldn’t have had access to a printing press.

Charles Johnson: Yeah, I think so. And then actually after the election of Barack Obama, I saw a real turn on the right side of the blogosphere.

Simon Owens: Do you think Twitter gave an avenue for those who had small blogs to say, “Eh, I’ll just use Twitter, I’m not going to bother with blogging”?

Charles Johnson: Yeah, I think Twitter sucked a lot of oxygen out of the atmosphere for blogs.

Simon Owens: Part of the reason you’re famous is for your shifting ideology. You were famously profiled in the New York Times about it. What did you notice as you started to shift? You have a very vibrant community of commenters. What did you notice with your readers as your views evolved?

Charles Johnson: If I go back to 2006, 2007, we had some huge battles at my site on issues like creationism and climate change. And I came down heavy on the side of science in these battles. It was to my great surprise that I had a sizable contingent of creationists among my readers, which I had not known because the subject had never come up before. A lot of people did not like that I was pro-science.

Simon Owens: So did you start getting new readers who were more left-of-center?

Charles Johnson: That’s honestly not something I keep track of a lot. I try to do things not in response to what’s popular or not. I’m trying to write as much as I can without pandering to popularity. I don’t really pay too much attention to that. Definitely a lot of people did get angry at me for that. Some of them are still stalking me on the web today.

Simon Owens: I remember that conservative bloggers like Michelle Malkin used to link to you all the time. Have all your ties to the conservative blogosphere basically been severed?

Charles Johnson: Oh yeah, definitely. There’s no doubt about that. When I say people are stalking me, I’m not hallucinating. There’s a website, and they post about me all the time. They take screenshots every single day. For years now. I’d say close to seven years.

Simon Owens: Do you feel they felt betrayed? If you’d always been a liberal blogger that might not have happened?

Charles Johnson: I think that was a big part of it. Yeah.

Simon Owens: What happened to your web traffic as your ideology shifted?

Charles Johnson: It’s definitely not what it was back in the heyday of the Rathergate years. And I think part of that was because of the shift. It’s not bad in any case. It’s about a half million a month or so.

Simon Owens: You were one of the early founders of Pajamas Media, which started out as a conservative blog advertising network. And it wasn’t just Pajamas Media — there was Federated Media, Blogads — there was this idea that if bloggers could band together, even if they were just independent bloggers with not huge traffic, then they could become strong enough as an advertising bloc. Obviously Pajamas Media ended its relationship with a lot of its bloggers and became a standalone news site. What are your thoughts on that in terms of how well Pajamas Media is doing now?

Charles Johnson: The original thought was to leverage that long tail, where as long as you have enough of a tail, then not everyone would need to have massive traffic. And when it came to bloggers and all that we didn’t want it to be exclusively right wing or left wing, and we were sort of trying to be post-wing. That’s all gone by the wayside now. It’s now all under new management. It didn’t turn out at all like I’d hoped it would.

Simon Owens: Do you think that long tail dream was never really possible?

Charles Johnson: After my experience with it I think it’s probably not a valid way to go about advertising.

Simon Owens: You monetize your site, right?

Charles Johnson: Yes, I do have ads and all that.

Simon Owens: Does it bring enough to make a full-time living? As a standalone website with a lot of readers, can you make a full-time living off that?

Charles Johnson: I have been. It goes up and down. Advertising is variable. I’m managing to keep my head above water.

Simon Owens: We talked about how there’s the end of the independent website, but lately I feel like it’s been making a comeback. There are a lot of new small news startups. We have Andrew Sullivan returning to his own website. There’s Daring Fireball which has continued to thrive. Every day I see these old school bloggers returning to their own websites and promising to pen their own stuff again. Do you feel like we’re trying to return back to the longer-form thinking, and we’ve realize that we’re giving Twitter and Facebook too much power and we need to start establishing our own websites again?

Charles Johnson: Well that would be great, wouldn’t it? I’m not sure we’re at that point just yet. I think people are starting to realize that 140 characters can only express so much. And if you want to do more you’ve got to write more. Some people go to Tumblr. The thing is nowadays there’s almost no entry barrier at all. It’s extremely easy to set up a blog at WordPress. My blog is all completely self-programmed. I don’t use WordPress or any of those. I’m kind of unique in that way.

Simon Owens: You keep seeing news about how sites have become incredibly reliant on getting traffic from Facebook. Maybe this is recognition that we’ve been giving it too much power?

Charles Johnson: Oh I’ve seen my traffic shift almost entirely to Twitter and Facebook. But some of the changes that Google has made recently has made it hard to track where traffic is coming from. They run their entire site now in https mode, which means that if someone clicks on a link from Google to your site, you don’t get the referrer information. You can’t tell. All you know is it came from Google.

Simon Owens: Yeah, I’ve noticed in Google Analytics you can no longer tell the keywords that people are Googling to get to my site.

Charles Johnson: That’s why it’s getting difficult to track. What I do know is that a lot of my traffic is coming from Twitter and Facebook links.

Simon Owens: Speaking of the return to the independent website, one thing you’ve become well-known for lately is you’ve been one of the highest-profile critics of the other Charles Johnson. What do you think he signifies? He seems like an evolution, like the next rung down from Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.

Charles Johnson: I would call it a devolution, actually. [Laughs]. What he’s doing is flat-out lying. He’s posting stuff he knows is false and not correcting it all and even acknowledging it’s false. Or even mistaken. I feel like in a way he’s damaging my brand because he has the same name. It’s the only reason I focus on him.

Simon Owens: I don’t know if it’s complete bullshit or not, but he seems to be making a living off it. The same thing with James O’Keefe. It seems like what makes the internet great is that we can find our niches, but these people can also find the very small but vibrant minority that’s willing to open up their checkbooks. Do you think that’s one of the trade-offs of the greatness of the internet? That you can find your niche but that also allows some of the horrible racists or polemicists to find their niche as well?

Charles Johnson: Or even the grifters who are preying on people’s prejudices to extract money from them. Which is kind of what I think Chuck does. I have no idea how much of it he really believes. I think a lot of it is just red meat for the audience.

Simon Owens: I guess he’s here to stay. It’s like Rush Limbaugh. The guy is always going to have enough of a right-wing audience.

Charles Johnson: It looks like it, unfortunately. I haven’t had much success driving him off the internet, and I don’t expect to. Not that I would even if I could, he’s definitely here to stay. Rush Limbaugh is promoting Chuck Johnson now. People like him are very useful to the right wing.

***

Like my writing? Then you should subscribe to my newsletter:

powered by TinyLetter

This company dominates the viral web. Can it conquer mobile news?

Alex Skatell, founder of IJReview

Alex Skatell, founder of IJReview

In many ways, Alex Skatell seems like the last person in the world who would want to develop a news product that can only be described as “anti-clickbait.” After all, Skatell launched the Independent Journal Review (IJReview for short), an Upworthy-style viral aggregation site that now receives over 30 million unique visitors a month and is ranked within the top 50 most-visited websites in the U.S. And then about a year ago the company he now co-owns debuted Liftbump, a site aggregating uplifting stories, images, and videos, and in the past six months the site has grown quickly to reach 10 million monthly unique visitors. It seems clear that he and his colleagues have gained whatever insight that allows them to tap into the human compulsion to click on and propagate content; the result is his sites’ hyperbolic headlines ricocheting across your Facebook newsfeed, each link more enticing than the last.

Yet when I spoke to him about Shuffle, the mobile news app his company launched in late 2014, Skatell told me that many of the stories featured on the app would be the kind you’re least likely to share on Facebook. “I may read a thousand stories a week, but only share one or two of them,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the best information for me to see, but it’s what shows up on social media sites. So how do you surface the other thousand articles that are being read but nobody is really posting to social media?”

The launch of the app comes as his company, Media Group of America, continues to shift from a rag tag group of content aggregators to a more serious, mature media entity. Skatell launched IJReview in 2012 as a side project while he was working a fulltime job as digital director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He hired a friend to edit the site and manage a small group of freelancers, and it wasn’t long before it began to generate serious traffic. It was around this time when Facebook began altering its algorithm to direct more of its readers toward news content, and those content producers who learned to capitalize on this shift were able to launch traffic-generating behemoths seemingly overnight. Suddenly you began to see news stories expressing wonderment that previously-unknown entities like Upworthy and Viral Nova were collecting more social media shares than the New York Times.

This development was met with no small amount of consternation from those who worry that Facebook is incentivizing the wrong kind of reading behavior. A recent New Yorker profile of a clickbait connoisseur — who has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital for his websites that do little more than repurpose lististicles —  resulted in harsh criticism against an industry propped up by empty calories, i.e. pageviews. This is a world that some believe rewards headline writers more than the laborers who actually created the original content.

After the election cycle ended in 2012, Skatell was making enough income from the site to focus full-time on IJReview, and in the process teamed up with Phil Musser, a longtime Republican media consultant, as his partner. The two launched Media Group of America, which in addition to publishing IJReview and Liftbump also runs a digital marketing consultancy for brands, Fortune 500 Companies, and politicians. And with the launch of Shuffle, it now has a technology arm, one that hopes to develop news products that utilize machine learning to predict what news you want and need to consume.

To understand the philosophy of Shuffle’s approach to news and how it determines what you should read, you must first contemplate why sites like IJReview have been so successful. A slate of recent studies into the social media habits of Americans have found that what we share doesn’t necessarily reflect our reading habits, but rather what we want others to believe are our reading habits. More specifically, we share news as a way to promote our outward facing selves and the passions and beliefs that we want others to know we hold. The Pew Research Internet Project has conducted several surveys trying to unravel our motivations for sharing social media content, and in August 2014 it released a study finding that “in both personal settings and online settings, people were more willing to share their views if they thought their audience agreed with them.” A survey commissioned by Ogilvy found that 36 percent of respondents said they mostly share content that promotes a cause or belief, and many of those surveyed said sharing on social media “helps define their personality.” Another Pew study reported that the vast majority of Facebook links are shared by a small minority of users, and most people either passively consume content or comment on other friends’ status updates.

This is why these viral aggregators traffic in hyperbole; it helps engender an impassioned response from the reader. “I think with Twitter and Facebook, the types of content that people share is the content that’s a nine or 10 on the passion scale,” said Skatell. “It serves as ammunition for their beliefs. But that’s not necessarily the most important content they should be sharing. It’s not what everyone in their town is sort of thinking or talking about or reading.” So as his company began contemplating how a potential mobile news app could work, he and his colleagues quickly realized that it would need to utilize both passive and active feedback when prioritizing content.

Carl Sceusa

Carl Sceusa

When Carl Sceusa, who leads the product team for Shuffle, began to try out other mobile news apps, he found that each left much to be desired when it came to recommending headlines. “None of them seemed to really fulfill our needs,” he said. “Specifically in that there’s so much content out there nowadays, sorting through it is just a massive undertaking, we couldn’t really get to the things that were most relevant to you.”

The world of news apps is becoming an increasingly crowded space. I profiled several of these apps in a recent article detailing how publishers are flocking to them while also abandoning their own standalone apps. Flipboard certainly stands as the most popular news app, with over 100 million users, but others have secured respectable adoption from millions of news consumers. In many cases, the apps I profiled allow you to choose categories and subtopics that interest you and then serve up those topics when you open the app. But Sceusa finds this method of news sorting to be fairly rudimentary. “Most the apps out there use just manual setup and kind of leave it at that,” he said. “It’s not refining what it’s showing you based on every single action you take. People might not know necessarily the specific types of news they’re actually reading as opposed to what they think they’d like to see.”

[LIKE THIS ARTICLE SO FAR? THEN YOU’LL REALLY WANT TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEWSLETTER. IT’S DELIVERED ONCE A WEEK AND PACKED WITH MY TECH AND MEDIA ANALYSIS, STUFF YOU WON’T FIND ANYWHERE ELSE ON THE WEB. SUBSCRIBE OVER HERE]

To understand what he meant, I downloaded the Shuffle app on my phone, and after sifting through several options and choosing which topics interest me, it began serving me content. The first thing that struck me was that it only offers up one headline to me at a time, forcing me to make a tacit disapproval or approval of the content based on whether I click on the headline to read more or swipe it away. In addition to swiping away content, you can also give more explicit feedback in the form of clicking on a red X or a green checkmark.

The Shuffle app

The Shuffle app

The app also allows you to change your filters so you can choose between your interests, what’s most popular, and what’s “nearby.” The nearby function, Skatell told me, is one of the app’s most important features, in that it uses geotagging to show you what other people nearby are reading. This will expose you to not only the national stories that your geographic area finds relevant — for instance, if you live in DC you’re likely to see a lot of political and policy headlines — but can also surface important local reports as well. “Local news outlets have a really tough time competing now with national news on Facebook, because the kinds of things they’re reporting on aren’t necessarily the kinds of things that are shared on Facebook and Twitter.”

So how did my own reading experience shape up as I tried it out over a period of days? Well, despite giving Shuffle no direct feedback to indicate I’m interested in sports, a sizable portion of the headlines served up to me were sports-related. I also was once again reminded why I love Twitter so much — the content Twitter shows me is based on a list of users, many with similar interests to mine, that I’ve spent curating over a period of years. The challenge every news app faces when trying to win me over is quickly surmounting the steep learning curve that allows it to predict my own quirky news interests. It could get tiresome swatting away headlines one at a time just so I could arrive at an article that I might want to click on and read in full. That stickiness that compels me to open up my Facebook and Twitter apps when I’m sitting at a lunch counter by myself or waiting in line didn’t seem to set in while I was trying out Shuffle.

But then again, its algorithm is still in its early learning phase, and trying the app out months from now, when it’s had the chance to harness millions of interactions from new users, may yield more compelling options for news consumption. When I spoke to Skatell he said his company had only secured partnerships with about 50 news producers, so it’s easy to imagine a more robust selection once it’s secured more participation (and with the announcement this week of major angel funding, it’ll have the resources to compete with bigger players).

As someone who’s grown dismayed by the degradation of serious news, a degradation that I think is caused, in part, by viral content aggregation, I can certainly appreciate Shuffle’s mission to eschew emotional manipulation in pursuit of a more wholesome reading experience. Now it just needs to prove it can amass users without the allure of “Puppies ‘Predicting’ the Winner of A Big Game Are So Cute They Make Everyone Forget Who’s Playing” (an actual Liftbump headline). If the app can do this, then there just may be hope yet for the future of serious journalism.

***

Did you like this article? Do you want me to create awesome content like this for you? Go here to learn how you can hire me.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.