Skip to content
 

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.

Palko

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.

Summary

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.

12 Comments

  1. zbicyclist says:

    “The last paragraph above was a joke” — not really. Do enough “native advertising” and the editorial content itself is likely to be friendly.

    While reputable news sources such as NYT and WSJ are likely to be able to generally enforce the wall between the news and advertising departments, my supposition is that the average internet source is likely to be far less prissy about such things.

  2. Greg says:

    So, the whole premise behind your post title is incorrect, and you realized it was incorrect while writing the post. The rest of your position seems to boil down to stating that some Axios articles are bland and don’t go very far beyond press releases. I’m pretty sure this has always been something of an issue with the press, considering that many actual newspapers back in the day when that meant something ran AP and Reuters articles that were basic recaps of the facts of a topic. The “that article wasn’t very good” critique is ubiquitous. Producing interesting and novel ideas is a challenge for all of us.

    • Andrew says:

      Greg:

      1. No, the premise behind the post title is not incorrect. It’s an exaggeration. Axios’s articles are not literally a Turing test. Rather, Axios has a business model in which ads are made to look like content—and one way to keep that going is for them to write content which looks like ads—which is exactly what they are doing.

      2. The problem is not that the Axios articles are bland. An operation that purports to be journalism but is actually running press releases is actively harmful, in that the press releases are being presented as independent news. The press releases are being laundered. A bland article would say something like this: “Tesla in a press conference announced X, but others note that this Tesla claim is implausible.” Boring, and it’s reporting (assuming they go to the trouble of getting the views from others).

      3. Let me say it again: A press release, or its equivalent, is not the same as a “basic recap of the facts of a topic.” Presenting the facts is fine. Presenting a press release, as if it were an independent statement of the facts: not so fine.

      4. I’m not asking that Axios “produce interesting and novel ideas” in every article, or even in any of its articles. I agree that’s a tall order. I just don’t think they’re much of a journalistic operation if they run the equivalent of advertising in their news slots. To go from press releases to bland recaps of the facts . . . that would be a big big step forward for Axios.

  3. Sycorax says:

    I think Herman and Chomsky got here first.

  4. Eduardo says:

    “Native advertising is a type of advertising, mostly online, that matches the form and function of the platform upon which it appears. “

    I guess they took this to heart, but found it easier to reverse the arrow: produce content that matched the advertisement.

  5. jonathan says:

    The Axios emails differentiate between stories and ads. The ads do fit the content.

    No one knows whether Netflix’s strategy makes sense. I don’t. I think the idea they’ll make themselves into some super source is kind of nuts: there’s just too much content to buy, too many licensing deals, rights constantly expiring, etc. And the idea that they’ll somehow master content creation reminds me of the books about how Hollywood sucks in new investors: no one knows how to make stuff people consistently want to watch. But if the idea is that Netflix can get such a position that they can then raise prices, I have to disagree: there are more and more streaming services, not fewer and fewer. My assumption is they look at the number of subscribers they have, think about how people are going to continue to drop cable, and project how much they can attract and relate that to spending. They’re likely talking about attracting a good share of a growing market and spending to grab that. I read the same thing on Axios.

    I also read the piece about Boring. I’ve read analysis of tunneling costs – became interested in that in relation to subways – but what amazes me is the weird way stories completely ignore every aspect other than digging a tunnel. Example: they’re building the Gordie Howe Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, ON, to handle the vast truck traffic. This requires massive staging areas on either side for the trucks. For tolls, for inspection, for whatever. So you think people would somehow just drive into this tunnel without any queue or security or payment? And since it’s some sort of transporting mechanism, not a drive-through, then you’d need complex loading and unloading, all of which not only take a lot of time and money but space. I’ve never seen a calculation of the size let alone a description of the processes.

    • Terry says:

      Just looking at it from 30,000 feet raises a lot of doubts.

      Humans have been digging tunnels for thousands of years. The industry is mature, and many thousands of people are highly knowledgeable about digging tunnels.

      What are the odds that Elon would come up with a dramatic breakthrough in tunneling technology? And if he did, what are the odds that his company would be the most skillful implementer of the technology? To name just a few considerations, what are the odds his people are the most skillful at waterproofing deep tunnels and at seismic design? Why would investors have more confidence in Elon’s people than in engineers who have decades of first-hand experience digging tunnels? A lot of engineering is experiential.

  6. Joe says:

    Well, Axios does produce some very high quality stuff (notably Jonathan Swan’s White House reporting).

    The trouble, as I see it, is that these sites face an incentive to pump out as much content as they can. Even with big funding, that’s not all going to be hard-hitting substantive journalism. So, it’s easy to take a press release and turn it into a puff piece just to satisfy that insatiable demand for new content.

    • Andrew says:

      Joe:

      Interesting point. In that case, the solution would be for Axios to hire Palko to be their technology reporter. If they paid him, say, $200 per post and he ran 100 posts per year, that would provide them with a high level of coverage on this area for just $20,000, a small fraction of their budget.

      But I think this suggestion reveals the problem: I don’t know that this press-release-style coverage arises purely from their resource constraints. It could well be that they’re running puff pieces on purpose, as a way of making their site more advertiser-friendly.

Leave a Reply