Felix Salmon's trolling on Vox buying Curbed is NYT-Style-Section-worthy

First, the article, on Reuters— Content economics, part 4: Scale

Since Vox is the parent company of the Verge, discussing this article is sufficently meta, right? Because, guys, for what this article gets right — that high-quality content managements systems are really the core to future profitability in digital media, it get so, so hilariously wrong on who the Verge's parent actually produces and what it should acquire next.

Basically if you excise the useful part of this article, and the part that is to the point of the title, namely that the future of digital media is scalable high-quality CMSes for a large umbrella of verticals to make it easier to generate ad buys, you're left with Salmon advocating Vox buying Buisiness Insider next.

Or maybe he just thinks he's reading the tea leaves because Vox CEO Jim Bankoff announced the purchase of Curbed, et al., at a conference sponsored by BI.

But really, I think he's just straight trolling. Like New–York–Times–Wedding–Announcement–"The word "starling" holds multiple meanings for the couple, who believe they are creatures from the stars"–level trolling.

Because really, let's look at what he wrote.

as the NYT notes in its article about the Curbed acquisition, "Vox has earned a reputation for high-quality content, producing sleekly photographed articles that integrate multimedia in a smooth and sophisticated manner." It’s that reputation which helps it maximize its ad rates — and if it becomes a company selling a hodge-podge of random sites, it’s going to find it difficult to maintain its premium pricing and desirability among advertisers.

Is Business Insider a good fit for Vox, even if it and Curbed are just a one-off acquisition and not a trend of a "hodge-podge of random sites"?

"Business Insider’s mass replication of my writing is the only downside that has ever made me reconsider my Creative Commons license"

I mean, what is Business Insider as far as content goes anyway? Is it really all that compatible with "high-quality content, [...] sleekly photographed articles that integrate multimedia in a smooth and sophisticated matter"? For that, let's turn to none other than Felix Salmon Felix Salmon's co-worker at Reuters, Ryan McCarthy, a couple years ago. In this post, Salmon analyzes a few example articles on BI: one, an article that is a point-by-point recapitulation of something off the AP wire, with a handy link to a related low-content BI slideshow listicle; the other, a 'summary' of an article on the NFL — from TMZ of all reputable sources — that's shorter than the original by a few dozen words. Coming from the perspective of an ex-academic, a 112-word version of a 182-word article isn't a summary, it's the stupidest kind of plagiarism, only exerting effort to cover up the fact that you didn't exert any effort to begin with. Salmon says something similar, "A minimum of effort could have added links to related stories on these pieces. With a little bit more effort the writer could have made observations about the larger context of these stories."

But the fact is that they didn't. Salmon does point out that there is some good, original content on BI, but is the output of a handful of writers really worth an acquisition of a content farm when print media is in the on-again-off-again process of shedding great (or at least, non-plagiarising) journalists? In a postscript, he adds a link to noted grouch Marco Arment complaining that "Business Insider's mass replication of my writing is the only downside that has ever made me reconsider my Creative Commons license" which is a pretty strong condemnation of BI's content and tactics.

Perhaps we should just give Salmon the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he forgot that just two years ago he wrote "One would hope readers and advertisers would eventually catch on to the kind of lazy lifting that would earn middle school students an F. But that hasn't happened yet," about BI. Because if he remembered that, why would he be suggesting BI would be a coup for Vox's ad revenues?

Well, it's because Felix Salmon is trolling harder than anyone since the orcs moved into Khazad-dûm.

"Vox Media, too, is not really a journalistic organization; it breaks little if any news"

Salmon suggests that Vox needs to buy Business Insider because "[n]ews is always a tougher sell, but at the same time it confers priceless legitimacy." So Vox needs BI for news, Salmon is talking here about news as such, not, e.g., Joe Weisenthal's market analysis. Vox needs the "priceless legitimacy" of a site, most of whose news is low-value listicle galleries and articles plagiarized from the news wire and celeb gossip. Why? As Salmon says "Vox Media [...] is not really a journalistic organization; it breaks little if any news." Don't let those nominations in online journalism, awards for best editorial and news app or features about Vox sites taking journalism seriously fool you. No breaking news here! Just trolling.

But then, to that end, I guess Salmon's achieved the goal of what he's writing about: ad revenue driven by page clicks. That's his point with these series, really, the profit of making good CMSes, not making the good content that goes into them. And that's where this sort of analysis always falls short: sure Huffpo and the like can turn a profit and drive traffic with their massive content farms and SEO (although in reality they can't turn a profit), but slick content management systems and pretty design can't gloss bad writing. Of course, as a Verge reader I might be a little partisan (so bias), but do you think this site would be where it is today in readership and profile in the two short years it's been around if it were just about the classy layouts? All the interactive chromeless pages and business-casual shorteralls in the world wouldn't have kept me reading if the content was garbage, or something I could have gotten reading my local paper's copy of the AP wire, or 46-item gallery lists with an ad every three clicks.

Although, let's get real, business-casual shorteralls are pretty rad.

Update: Felix Salmon has let me know via twitter that the 2011 article on Business Insider was written by Ryan McCarthy and not him, and that the Reuters CMS is in error. I think we can both agree, at least, a good CMS is important.