Is quality journalism and analysis doomed?

I wrote six pieces last week, covering a wider range of topics. If I were to rank them based on their potential for impact, it would go like this:

  1. How our favorite tech services should help us in emergencies – A look at the possible tsunami in Hawaii and Hurricane Sandy and how tech companies could help save lives in emergencies.
  2. Groupon’s one-year anniversary feels more like a funeral. So what’s next for daily deals? – A recap of what went with wrong with Groupon’s IPO and what’s ahead for the daily deals space.
  3. Learning from a failed IPO — A look at the failure of Varsity Books in the first dot com boom and how its co-founder managed through it and started a new company under the new rules for the current startup climate.
  4. Amazon’s advantage in holiday gift giving — Online is about more than price. Convenience plays a part.
  5. Mobile ordering cuts through the lines at Starbucks’ La Boulange — Mobile payments need to deliver more value than just eliminating the onerous task of swiping a plastic card.  (sarcasm intended)
  6. Why I’m returning my iPad mini — The iPad mini is so great that I’m taking back the low-end model I bought for something more powerful.

Several of those pieces required me conducting interviews or made use of my deeper analytical skills. The Groupon piece built on more than a year’s worth of work. One of the pieces required very little effort and no interviews. I bet you can guess which of the six required the least work and yet got the most attention.

Take something that involves Apple, slam a clever headline on it and — viola! traffic. (On the plus side, I now know how to say “linkbait” in many languages.) Social media took over and it went viral. The fact that many people read it meant many more people read it, because it stayed atop the “most popular” section.

That makes me sad.

The story about disaster-preparedness is by far the most important one. I would like every entrepreneur to read it and figure out how his or her company can help in a logical way.

If I were motivated purely by traffic, I’d keep writing stories like the one about the iPad mini. Unfortunately, clickthroughs and ratings (for TV) combined with time pressures influence too much of the coverage we see.

This isn’t just tech. Our political coverage is similarly screwed up. It takes a lot more effort to do an analysis of what Obamacare means or to look at how government is already involved in health care choices. It’s a lot easier to have two partisans shout at each other on screen. (And that will certainly get more ratings.)

It takes me at least six times as long as it does to write quality analysis as it takes to write a piece like the iPad piece. If I were being compensated based on traffic (either directly or indirectly), I know which I’d choose to write.

My motivations for writing are more complicated:

  • I want to make the world a better place. (Story 1)
  • I want to push for the design of better products and help entrepreneurs create better products. (4, 5)
  • I want to help entrepreneurs create more structurally sound companies. (2, 3)

I generally write about what I want, when I want. Still, I can’t help but notice the enormous difference in traffic levels.

I can take some solace in the fact that execs at various Valley companies, VCs and in the broader media read my work. I can hope that even if the stories like the disaster-preparedness story don’t have an immediate impact in terms of traffic, I’m getting some people to think differently about problems. And if you’re thinking about big problems like that and need some help, drop me a note:


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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