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Books | Internet

June 27, 2007

Farking up the Media

Drew Curtis, the man behind weird-news site Fark.com, tells Gelf how the media has devolved into crap.

David Goldenberg

What happens when you scan through up to 2,000 ridiculous articles a day for eight straight years? You start to notice trends. Like that Floridians tend to do really stupid things. And that people can't seem to read enough stories about men having sex with horses. Mainly, though, you begin to realize that the media has lost its grip on what constitutes actual news, and is devolving into a forum for fearmongerers, nutjobs, stupid celebrities, and brazen advertisers.

Drew Curtis
"You can't always tell when you're talking to a nutjob, but sometimes you can. When you can tell, don't fucking write about him."

Drew Curtis

Drew Curtis, who has run wacky news site Fark.com from his home in Lexington, Kentucky since 1999, has documented these trends and turned them into a scathing condemnation of the laziness of the press in his new book, It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News. It sounds strange that a man whose entire business revolves around linking to silly stories in the media would—as a Salon review claims—"bite the hand that feeds him," so Gelf sat down with Curtis at a bar in Berkeley to figure out what gives.

We learned that Curtis, 34, enjoys puerile stories as much as the next Fark reader, but that he's not afraid to mock the media outlets that provide them (and that includes CNN.com, which often uses its front page to link to his new video site.) Our wide-ranging conversation spanned three rounds of beer and included a discussion of why Jesus's face appearing on stuff never seems to get old; the hysteria surrounding Janet Jackson's boob; and whether Farkers are in on the joke that is today's media. The following interview has been edited for clarity and sobriety.

Gelf Magazine: When I read the headline of your book, I was sort of surprised. While many of your stories are a result of the media's laziness and stupidity, I always thought that far more of them were based on humanity's laziness and stupidity. Why did you decide to focus on the media aspect of your site?

Drew Curtis: It made it interesting for me. That was the main reason for doing this. The media know they're doing this, and it mystifies me as to why—well, not really. It was one of those things where I started talking about this with other journalists and they were like, "This is absolutely happening."

GM: You refer to journalists as Mass Media…

DC: I called them Mainstream Media initially, but then I was told that was a conservative term for it. I didn't realize that.

GM: Do you think there's actually some sort of conspiracy here, or are journalists just stupid and lazy?

DC: I'll tell you what it is. There are a couple reasons. First, there's a 24-hour news cycle, which is just too much, especially when there's nothing going on. We could go weeks without anything happening. But CNN's not just going to turn the lights off and go home and wait. They've got people employed, they've got to keep going. They've gotten into these habits over time of running these easy news stories that they can go to if they've got nothing going on. A lot of them can be pre-prepared and put in the can for a later news hole like the Christmas holiday week.

"Back in the day, I'm sure they had focus groups that asked people what they read, but I'm sure those people lied and said they were reading politics or sports or weather as opposed to people having sex with dogs."
GM: It sort of smacks of laziness to me if you're saying that basically people don't want to go out and do hard work.

DC: Sort of. But also, at the same time, you're kind of at a loss as to what the Hell to cover. Between the 1920s and the 1980s, roughly, is when you had the half-hour news segment. I have a theory that this is where the impartial journalism came from. Walter Cronkite or whoever would do their half hour—just the stuff you needed to know. Now that somebody's job is depending on it, they have to spread it out.
The second collaborating factor is that, now that the internet is around, they can see where their traffic's going, what people are choosing to read. Back in the day, I'm sure they had focus groups that asked people what they read, but I'm sure those people lied and said they were reading politics or sports or weather as opposed to people having sex with dogs or tattooed fish or whatever.

GM: I think I read on Fark that a couple years ago, a Seattle paper listed its top ten most-read stories of the year, and something like eight of them were about this man who was killed having sex with a horse. [Editor's note: It was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; links from outside sites such as Fark undoubtedly boosted the traffic to those stories.]

DC: That's it in a nutshell. Once they started to see where the traffic was actually going—and now that we are now in an à la carte news-consuming age—what do you do if you're a news organization? You're kind of screwed at that point. People don't particularly click on news articles. They will click on all the stupid stuff, like Jesus's face appearing on a door or Paris Hilton or whether or not a space shuttle is going to crash-land in Los Angeles. They don't really care about Iraq.
Go to CNN or Fox News or any site that's got a most-popular list. Check out what's most popular. It's nothing. It's crap. Not a single story about Iraq or Afghanistan anywhere in there. No geopolitics at all. It's mostly dumb stuff. They're serving it up because that's what people actually want to read and see. I think it's a real hard spot to be in if you're in a media outlet.

GM: Is there something inherently wrong with fluff journalism?

DC: Only when you're trying to claim to be a news leader.

GM: Is that because it's coming at the expense of other things, or is it just dumbing down the whole process?

DC: It's the prioritization. It's kind of hard because on the one hand it's like they're not choosing to put this stuff out front that everybody would need to know, but at the same time, if they did, nobody would click on it. It's a chicken-and-egg problem.

GM: Your solution was to have a news section of a site and then a non-news section of a site.

DC: All the journalists I've talked to say that wouldn't work. That's why you'd need to have CNN split itself up into two distinct channel divisions. You'd need to have a CNN Hardcore, which actually covers news.

GM: And how is that different from what's going on right now?

DC: Well right now, you've got them claiming to be the most trusted name in news and they are giving you bullshit for 24 hours a day. Therein lies the problem. If they could split it up and say here is a new channel—one that is absolute and complete crap—that would be great.

GM: You're complaining about the lack of nuance in the news—that no one can tell if a story is bullshit or not—but do you ever worry that lumping all of the journalists into this Mass Media thing is doing the same thing?

DC: The problem is that there aren't too many good ones out there. What I've done is laid out rules in the book to identify when you're watching bullshit—which most people can't seem to tell. If you happen to watch a news show and you don't see any of that stuff going on, you're probably in pretty good shape.
But it's not an attack on journalists; in fact, the journalists that I've talked to love this book. They're crazy about it. Because they live this. Especially the guys at CNN and FOX: They suffer through this on a daily basis. They just want to kill themselves sometimes when they see what they end up having to talk about. And it's partly a function of the fact that in TV news, the journalists are not delivering the news. It's talking heads. And, unfortunately, talking heads are trying to look intelligent when they're talking about: "Are your kids in danger of being infected by dog diabetes?" or, "What's the next drug on the streets?" The journalists, especially in TV news, have really just had it. They can't stand it. Because this isn't what they got into the business to do. They came in to solve problems, shine lights on evils in the world, and fix things. Not to talk about Jesus's face appearing on a donut.

GM: When you put these things up on Fark, and when you talk about them in the book, even your most loyal readers don't seem to be in on the joke.

DC: We're trying to bring them in. Some times people need to come to it on their own rather than be told.

"The journalists have really just had it. They can't stand it. Because this isn't what they got into the business to do. They came in to solve problems, not to talk about Jesus's face appearing on a donut."
GM: You'll say, here's a list of the hottest 50 girls, and they're discussing who's the hottest, not how silly the whole thing is.

DC: It's human nature. We all go for it.

GM: But there's also stuff on Fark that is news, right?

DC: We're really just screwing around. People ask me all the time who our competitors are. We don't have any, because we're not trying to be the news. All the guys at sites with comparable traffic are trying to be the news—that's the big difference.

GM: But there probably are lots of people who just get their news from Fark.

DC: Probably, yeah. But we've got that general caveat: "It's not news, it's Fark."

GM: Let's go back to what you were saying earlier about how a lot of media serve up crap, like Maxim has this 50 hottest people and whatnot. But then they also buy sponsored links on your site.

DC: Maxim doesn't, but some other ones have. We put stuff up there, but they have to pay for it. They tried to get me to link to something today that I shot down because it sucked. It was an alternate ending to the Sopranos. I watched it and was like, this is not going up.
It's all over the place. Advertisers are dumb. They've latched onto something lately that's called cobranding sites. Somebody has actually gone out and created a site that's branded as a cross between Maxim and GM and the Transformers movie. Which is one that we linked to recently. You can go there and watch movies there. It's the dumbest thing in the world. I don't know why anyone would go there. Then they ask us to use those as sponsored links to populate them with traffic. Advertisers are crazy about this. I have no idea why.

GM: Do your readers ever get pissed off when they can't tell the difference?

DC: We label them. And it's not too bad, because we reject an awful lot of sponsored links because they suck. And as I explain to the advertisers, the whole damn point is that you want people to click on these things, so you've got to let us decide what goes up. If it sucks, and people start getting into the habit of thinking that sponsored links are complete horseshit, then nobody's ever going to click on them. But right now, the average sponsored link gets anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 clicks.

GM: And what does the average nonsponsored link get?

DC: Five thousand to 10,000.

GM: So the sponsored links do better?

DC: The only stuff we accept is the stuff that's absolutely compelling. It actually is good shit when we put it up there. We reject stuff all day long. I've actually sent five-figure ad deals back to the advertiser because they want to put something up that's not going to fly. Our site is based on the content we link to. If we link to bullshit, then it damages our site. We try to make sure it's good stuff, but I don't know why our readers like it. I don't get it. Whatever.

GM: I've seen that FarkTV is often linked to on the CNN home page. Isn't that ironic, considering your thoughts on CNN?

DC: I know—that's inter-company cross-promotion. [Editor's note: Fark TV, but not Fark, is partially owned by the Turner Broadcasting System.] I think that they're trying to make that the internet equivalent of the Sunday comics.

GM: So it doesn't piss you off?

DC: No, I think it's great. I have no problem at all. I don't know why they do it. I have no explanation for it. It's just like, "What the fuck?" If there's ever a bigger example of what I'm talking about, this is it.

GM: So does it make you think less of CNN for doing it?

DC: Absolutely. It does. I don't know why; I don't know how the Hell that got through.

GM: Do you ever feel like you're creating a market for crap by sending hundreds of thousands of people to these ridiculous stories?

DC: I don't know. I don't think so, in the sense that we're not forcing anyone to like that stuff. And we are linking to the one or two actual honest-to-God news stories of the day, and people can click on that if they want to…
So not really. I was talking to some guys last night in Raleigh who said, "Thanks for helping me waste all this time at work." And I said, "You know what I think. You have a baseline for how much time you're willing to waste at work, and you're just spending it with us. I don't think we're causing you to waste more time that would already be wasting. But you're doing it with us as opposed to anyone else."

GM: But you don't think that there's anyone out there that's thinking, "I'm going to do this totally ridiculous study on the off-chance that Fark links to it"?

DC: It happens all the time. We see it constantly. Because we vet all the stuff, it's a little bit easier to stop that stuff as opposed to on a voting site, where you could contact those guys in India to vote up stuff on Digg. But I'm sure the same stuff that's getting submitted to them is getting submitted to us. I see outright spam coming in all the time, but because we're actually clicking on it, we can kill it on sight.

"Our site is based on the content we link to. If we link to bullshit, then it damages our site."
GM: People tend to play up this competitiveness you have with Digg—

DC: We're not doing the same thing. They're news. Or at least they think they're news.

GM: But you do overlap on some stories…

DC: But they're real tech-centric, and they're more into serious news-type stuff and we're going for the gut laugh every time. But there's bound to be overlap.

GM: But there are plenty of other sites out there that try to replicate what you've done. [Editor's note: Examples include: Dave's Daily, and Crazy Reports.]

DC: There are some people who have tried. They look at it and they think it will be easy. That's like you and me going into business doing a steak restaurant. I can cook steak, you can probably wash dishes, but it isn't that easy, as it turns out. It's all about the execution. And there's a whole host of other things involved, like how you treat the community, where you get your stuff from… A lot of people have tried, and I'm not saying nobody's ever going to succeed—they probably will at some point—but it's more difficult than it looks.

GM: And how many employees do you have?

DC: I've got one full-time tech guy and my sales guys is commission-only, but technically he's full-time, too. And that's it. And a bunch of moderators.

GM: And the moderators work for free?

DC: Around Christmastime we give gifts and stuff. It just depends on what we've got left over at the end of the year. It's a lot easier to run a business when you know everyone else is getting fully paid elsewhere.

B2 Cover

Drew Curtis on the cover of Business 2.0.

GM: Speaking of crap stories, do you ever feel like the story of Fark fits into that? I read this Business 2.0 piece, and I feel like they're trying to create this trend [of burgeoning web businesses] out of just a few successful sites. [Disclosure: I've written a few stories for Business 2.0]

DC: Absolutely. They were all about the money. Money, money, money, money. In fact, every article about the book is basically unpaid placement masquerading as an article. I've got some legitimate points, but at the end of the day, I'm still selling a book.

GM: And you don't worry about getting ultra-meta with it? You don't care?

DC: Nah. I even mentioned it in the Christian Science Monitor article that I wrote. I offered up one example of unpaid placement masquerading as an article, and then I wrote, "Sharp readers will see what I just did there." A lot of people got it, but a lot of people didn't. In fact, the editor didn't catch it. He wanted to take that out. He said, "I don't get it." I explained it to him [that the article was basically an unpaid placement for the Fark book], and he said, "I am such a dumbass."

GM: In general, is the idea of objective journalism flawed?

DC: It's more that you can't always tell when you're talking to a nutjob, but sometimes you can. When you can tell, don't fucking write about him. Otherwise, keeping an open mind is a really good idea. But like after 9/11, there were media writing that some people don't believe this really happened, but so far nobody produced a shred of evidence to the contrary.

GM: Is there a line you would draw?

DC: No, not really. Like I said, you can't always tell, but sometimes you can tell. And when you can tell, you shouldn't give them a forum. Someone sent a journalist out to a small town in Texas to find the grave of an alien that supposedly crashed there in 1897. What the Hell was the point of that? There's no way in Hell that's legitimate. And the people that set it up knew that from the beginning. But they did it anyway. That's the stuff I object to. And then there's other stuff, like stem-cell research or global warming. You've got to keep an open mind on that stuff—you can't absolutely know that there are nutjobs, thought there probably are in some cases.

GM: But let's say you are a journalist and you personally are convinced about a certain topic. Like evolution versus creationism. Even though 48% of the public disagrees with you, are you able to still completely disregard that?

DC: I would. But I'm not a journalist. I'm in a unique position where I don't have to put up with that shit.
It's just when they know. Like Jesus's face appearing on something. I've got a real problem with that because I think we can conclusively say that almost all—if not every single one of those—is a complete fabrication. And they've got to know that when they run the story. But they run it anyway because they know that it's of interest to people.

CNN, scrubbed

The Daily Kos scrubs the crap out of CNN.

GM: You were saying earlier that the internet is allowing news organizations to figure out what hits and what doesn't on a per-article basis. Does that mean that the news is getting crappier?

DC: It is on the internet, at any rate. There's a really funny article over at the DailyKos from last October. What they did was take a screenshot from CNN on a random day, scrubbed out all the non-news, the advertising, the YouTube stuff off of it, and they had five articles left. Then they compared it to CNN in 2000. There was a vast, vast difference between the two pages. There's definitely been a shift. Back in 1999, the unique appeal of Fark was that it was hard to find this stuff. Now it's on the main page of every news site out there.

GM: If that's true, why is your site still doing well? [Editor's note: according to the infamous Alexa chart, Fark's traffic has dropped over the last six months.]

DC: I think it's because we still go farther than they're willing to go.

GM: So the Mass Media is changing their coverage based on what people want. Is Fark doing the same thing?

DC: No, not at all. We're doing it based on taglines for the most part. As long as the tagline is funny, I'm willing to link to pretty much anything. As long as it makes me laugh. But I do know how to drive traffic up on stuff. All you have to do is mention that it's related to sex somehow. That will drive the traffic up times five. If you mention that there's a picture, then it will double it. Any time you have a teacher having sex with a student, and you can get a mugshot, the traffic will triple.

GM: In the book, you have this great rant about the coverage of Janet Jackson's boob. Why is the American press so much more moralistic about sex than the European press?

DC: It's a reflection of the American populace. My theory on most of the media coverage is that the water runs downhill. Basically, it will find the easiest channel and go to it. That's basically how the media coverage goes, too. By and large, especially on TV news and newspapers, the audience is all geriatrics, basically. The get-off-my-lawn types with their canes and walkers.

GM: They're determining this attitude?

DC: They give good lip service to it, but if you watch traffic patterns, you can see that that's obviously not the case. It's a weird thing about our society. It's not that people don't click on nudity—they click the shit out of it. They just don't admit it. I ran an ISP for about six years, and once when we analyzed the traffic, it was 80% pornography. But if you ask people, "What do you do on the internet?" they wouldn't say, "I look up farmsex.com."

GM: Are Americans getting more liberal about that?

DC: I can't tell. I recently read a fear-mongering article about the mainstreaming of pornography, which was really written to scare the geriatrics out of their beds. They're right that it's happening, but is it a bad thing? Not particularly. We're not grabbing people off the street and making them do it.

Jesus

A shower stain is among the many newsworthy places where Jesus's face has appeared.

GM: Whenever I write an article for a magazine [Editor's Note: Other than Gelf], the editor asks me, "What's your peg?"—meaning, basically, what event is happening soon that merits this coverage? When you make fun of seasonal stories, you seem to be advocating that news pegs are stupid. I agree. Why can't the peg be, "This is fucking interesting?"

DC: I'm making fun of it, but a lot of this stuff people do forget. Like, when I mention stuff that happens every single year, people remember it because I mention it. They're not anticipating the next several seasonal articles that are coming up. I am, because I know what they are. I think that it's just human nature. After a certain amount of time, we're interested in stuff again. A year is pretty much long enough.
The one that blows the curve, though, is Jesus's face appearing on stuff. If you have a $1,000 hamburger story, you're not going to do a five-pound hamburger story any time within the next month, minimum. When Jesus's face appears on two different objects in three days, they'll run them both. That I don't understand.

GM: The book is a pretty thorough condemnation of the shit that journalists are willing to do to get paid, whether they agree with it or not. And you don't think journalists are insulted?

DC: You don't have a choice, really. I think the real fault lies with the executives and the management level. I think they have too many managers who were promoted out of harm's way, running things because they're inept. And then you've got your executives, who are just looking at bottom line, and aren't really too concerned with anything other than that. That crosses journalistic integrity, and journalists don't really appreciate that, but hey, what can you do?

GM: One of the things you mention is that you think the media devotes way too much print to outing plagiarizers.

DC: My theory is that it's because journalists have to learn to understand something a bit more complicated. But they already understand journalism and what it's like to work in the news circuit.
It's interesting how few people care about it, as far as the reading public goes. You look at proportion of coverage given to plagiarists versus coverage given to serial killers. It's interesting how far out of proportion it is. I have a feeling it's just because they understand it. No research necessary. We can shit all over those guys for being idiots. It's like a bunch of barracudas attacking one of their own once it starts bleeding.
It's the same reason that I think most coverage happens in proximity to New York City. It's just easier to stick a camera out a window. It's not necessarily laziness. It's more convenience than anything else.

"You look at proportion of coverage given to plagiarists versus coverage given to serial killers. It's interesting how far out of proportion it is."
GM: Do you really think there's a difference?

DC: Some things I do because it's convenient, and some things I do just because I'm lazy. Some things you can't tell the difference on, but other things you can definitely tell the difference on.

GM: How did you get Stephen King to review your book? [Editor's note: Part of King's back-of-the-book blurb reads, "at one point I laughed so hard I almost threw up." ]

DC: That's really weird. I'll tell you what I know. I know that my parents grew up in the same town that Stephen King did. Both my parents are from Maine. My dad was in the band with his older brother. My mom is really good friends with one of his best friends. It's Maine. Something like 20 people lived there in the 1960s. So there was that connection. My publisher for Gotham, his wife is Stephen King's agent, and when we were talking about people to send out copies to, I said to send one out to Stephen King because of the home connection. And my publisher said that wouldn't be a problem, because his wife is King's agent. But he didn't send it out to him until Dave Barry wrote back to us and gave us a jacket quote. And I don't know if that's what sealed it or not, but right after that is when he got a copy of the book.
He really liked it. That's probably one of the more fantastic things that's ever happened to me, as far as anything that's been going on with Fark.

GM: You mentioned that when you were pitching the book, publishers were telling you to just run funny Fark headlines.

DC: They were like, "Can you just print the website out somehow?" That was the last thing I wanted to do. I had to fight with them. They wanted to do the easy thing. The book industry is like the movie industry. They want the five percent gain. If they make five percent, they're happy. I just couldn't physically write that. It would bore me to death.

GM: Do you have another book in you?

DC: I've been talking to a new agency that wants to pick me up, and they want me to do a book about how sports media is total bullshit. They are absolutely right about that. I don't know, though, because there's only a few different things I can say about it and then it would just repeat. What I would say about it is that ESPN coverage is basically turning into the WWE in the sense that all they're covering is the off-the-field antics. They're running the scores down on the bottom and they've quit covering the actual games. Instead, they're talking about Michael Vick's dogfighting thing [Deadspin] or which one of the Cincinnati Bengals got arrested. It's a giant fucking circle…

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Comments

- Internet
- posted on Jun 28, 07
some guy

Using Alexa as a data source for traffic is highly unreliable, especially in the case of Fark. I believe Drew was recently quoted as saying 60% of his traffic uses Firefox now. (I realize this doesn't reflect overall browser market share, but it gets played up a lot in the forums, and there are several useful extensions specifically for Fark). Also, most spyware removal tools remove Alexa.

Look at the charts for slashdot.org and CNN.com, you'll see a similar effect. Fewer people are using Alexa.

- Internet
- posted on Aug 21, 07
205guy

2 data points:

1. Just from unscientific observation of my MyYahoo page, Yahoo's "Most Viewed Stories" overlap about 50% in substance (not exact articles) with "Reuters Top Stories," including Afghanistan and Iraq. I have no idea how those two lists are compiled, but I think you can say the most-popular lists are only half-crap. The most viewed photos, however, are 100% crap (gross, celebrity, animals, extreme weather, ad nauseum).

2. CNN is already split up into CNN and CNN-Europe (or whatever it's called over there).

PS: I love Fark, especially the photoshopping contests, but I can't read it often because it does suck me in and make me waste additional time. Glad to see the "insider" knowledge about Mass Media being distilled from your experience there. Also, I just discovered Gelf and have been wasting additional time here.

PPS: thinking some more about the issue of how people consume news and the motivations behind those who serve it up, the distinction is not between "all-inclusive (per newspaper)" and "a la carte (per story)" (in the CSM article) but between paid-for (per newspaper) and free (per story on the internet)--knowing full well that papers are advertising-sponsored. Until we have a model where I can pay 25 cents per article--and expect to receive quality journalism in return, articles will continue to be worth less than the advertising. In a way, that's what the Economist is doing, if I had the time to read their magazine, I would subscribe.


Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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