My PoliMedia.press experiment: Six months of fun and hell
Thoughts on the short-lived experimental website that never really was launched, so not surprisingly never gained an audience, but did manage to find unknown enemies simply through being published
This website is never going to make anyone rich, I am afraid to say. Digital publishing vendors generally don’t market themselves very aggressively, and few do any advertising at all, let alone on an industry website.
So, for the past two years or so I’ve contemplated launching a second website, one that is not so much B2B, so as to make a few dollars more than TNM can provide.
At first I thought about all my areas of interest – music, film, food, wine, etc. – thinking that I have many years of experience and gained knowledge to share, just as I feel I do in publishing. But, as a publisher, one also knows that there is always someone out there who knows more than you do, and so why not let them write about those topics. So every time I thought I have come up with a topic, I thought about it longer and dissuaded myself of the notion.
Even the presidential election cycle began to heat up in earnest, I realized that there was a topic that would be halfway between B2B and consumer – politics and the media. It helped that right from the beginning Donald Trump made the media an issue in his campaign.
That was the thinking behind PoliMedia.press, a website that would look at the intersection of politics and the media, one that would look at how the media was reporting on the campaigns, as well as government, in general.
It would not be a blog, I would not be writing opinion pieces, I was doing enough of that here at TNM. No, what I would do was comment on what the media was reporting, then give examples of it in each story. It would be somewhat like the Morning Briefs here, but only on one story topic.
After finding an appropriate WordPress theme, and doing all the technical things one needs to do with creating a new website, I reached out to Google to get the new site recognized as a news site so it would be included in Google News. I also then made sure it would appear inside the Apple News app, as well.
Unlike with TNM, where Google reached out to say they had accepted TNM into Google News, I never heard back from Google, but soon discovered that PoliMedia was being included. This provided PoliMedia with an immediate advantage over TNM’s first days. When I compared the first week’s traffic of TNM and PoliMedia I saw that the new site was immediately outperforming the early days of TNM. This was a good start.
PoliMedia was also immediately getting reader feedback, but few of the comments made it online as they appeared to be from very unhinged individuals – almost all of them saying they were supporters of Donald Trump. Many of them came from IP addresses that placed them in Russia or Eastern Europe.
As the campaigns reached their end and the conventions loomed things got stranger. Traffic, which has started out pretty good stagnated, but would spike once a week, in a pattern that was hard to understand. One could see that one certain days PoliMedia would outperform TNM by a tenfold margin, thanks to one story that was promoted by Google or Apple. But on most days traffic lagged behind TNM. Generally, PoliMedia garnered double or triple the traffic than TNM via Apple News, and this did not surprise as Apple News feels more consumer.
But newspapers began to make their endorsements things got dark. Comments would accuse PoliMedia of bias simply by reporting that such and such a newspaper had made an endorsement of the Democratic candidate.
That came the denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
Trying to stay live online
Right after the conventions I began to get messages from my hosting service that traffic had spiked on PoliMedia and that as a precaution the site had been taken offline. The language of the notices was very vague, but I found that I could easily bring the site back online. The attacks were generally occurring at the same time, very early in the morning, or one might say, when business is just getting started in certain regions of eastern Europe.
My host never helped pinpoint the origins of the attacks, and appeared hesitant to even discuss what was going on. But one person I spoke to told be that this was an ongoing issue.
I mentioned it on TNM when, around the same time, other websites were publicly acknowledging their battles with DDoS attacks. This lead to TNM being also attacked each early morning in the same manner as PoliMedia. For a two week period of time, just staying online was difficult.
But the attacks were clearly not sophisticated as simply adding a layer of protection at the host proved sufficient to keep the sites operating.
Then came the threatening phone calls and emails.
These were nothing compared to what political journalist were dealing with, but I still found them annoying. PoliMedia was, after all, nonpartisan, and not at all an opinion site. But the site was covering the issue of intimidation of journalists at Trump rallies, and what many of them were dealing with on social media.
In the end, PoliMedia was shuttered not so much from these issues, but from the fact that traffic was dependent on building an audience of readers who were interested in reading a variety of viewpoints from a variety of news outlets. I never saw that audience being built.
A visit to the dark side
At the heart of PoliMedia was the notion that one media outlet is as valid as another. That’s a hard notion to buy into when you have been trained as a journalist and expect that everyone agrees that the newsroom of The New York Times is the industry standard. But does not get a variety of opinions by one writing about the NYT and WaPo are reporting, and so PoliMedia would also include content from Breitbart News, RedState and other outlets.
At first, what was interesting was to read the battles between Breitbart and RedState. When PoliMedia launched the story of the Breitbart reporter attacked by Cory Lewandowski was a big story, then the fact that Breitbart threw their own reporter under the bus was, as well.
What one learned, however, was that the real action going on at Breitbart, once you got passed the blaring headlines, was not in their stories, but in the comments. A Breitbart story about, say, the Wisconsin primary, would not be very different from anyone else’s story. In fact, this caused a problem at PoliMedia. One couldn’t get the flavor of the reporting on the site through excerpts of the stories, they were benign. The real action was under the surface, in the comment threads where the conspiracy theories lived, where opinions were reinforced. A Trump loss in Wisconsin, for instance, was simple a bump in the road in the Breitbart story, but in the comments, it was a betrayal by the Republican elite who were conspiring to prevent Trump from winning the nomination.
It is hard to report that because comments are so easily dismissed by the mainstream media.
But I soon realized that if one looked at The Washington Post and Breitbart News solely based on what readers were saying in the comments, that the two sites were very much the same – but were far right news websites, with the Post having a few HRC supporters thrown in for flavoring.
Another important topic was fake news, and how much traction certain stories were gaining. Again. looking through the lens of right-wing websites, one could see that anything said in the NYT about the Clinton emails would be amplified ten fold. When media outlets, after the November election, produced word clouds of the coverage, it revealed that the word EMAIL dominated the coverage of Hillary Clinton, whereas the word cloud for Trump was a mix of words that showed no dominate theme.
The launch of PoliMedia was what would call a soft launch – where the site goes live, you write each day, but you purposely don’t make an official “live” announcement until you feel you are ready. I never felt PoliMedia was ready because I never felt like it was reaching an audience I cared about. Who it was reaching was shady actors who seemed to monitor negative news about their candidate so they could shout it down. Few readers ever reached out to say they appreciated the effort to present an accurate and even handed look at how the media reports on politics.
For every success launch there are ten that die out, it is the nature of the business. Besides, PoliMedia never really ever launched and was always, during its short life, just an experiment.
But if there was one lesson I learned that dwarfs all the others it is this: the establishment media, the media you and I work in, vastly underestimates the influence of the dark side of the web. It is not just Breitbart, it is not just Facebook, it is everything that feeds into that.
In an interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air, NYT executive editor Dean Baquet is asked “When did you become aware of the fake news that’s all over the internet now and the impact that it’s having?”
His answer is the stupidest thing I’ve heard from someone at such an important media institution.
“You know, not early enough, not early enough, to be honest. I bet most editors would say that. I think it was only near the end – I mean, I would get stuff myself in my email and on my Facebook feed with outlandish allegations about the Clintons and outlandish allegations about other people. I guess I thought at the time that it was just sort of part of the traffic of the internet and that – and we could ignore it and that people were ignoring it. I think – I’m not convinced that it had impact on the presidential election, by the way.”
This is the view from the bubble. The bubble PoliMedia was designed to burst, so that we all can get a truer picture of what is the media, and what readers really are reading.
Note: Don’t look for PoliMedia.press online, it was truly shuttered, with its files deleted. It was live long enough, however, for the Internet archive to screen capture a few pages – which is where the images used here were found.