Video killed the radio star (Part 917)

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American media is on fire. It could be because of the tax evasion exposed with the Paradise Papers — that would be a very good reason. Or, at least, journalists should be this hectic as a result of the rise of mass killing in the US during this decade. But no, unfortunately, neither. Last week, an unorthodox group of “broadcasters” embarked on a ranting spree against Apple. In essence, they’re mad at the company because it handed out review units of the new iPhone X to a bunch of… non-specialists (I’m quite sure they would use a different word).

One day before Halloween, Dan Frommer, from Recode, published a whimpering article mouthing off about it: “Apple invited YouTubers you probably haven’t heard of, gave them some early hands-on time with the iPhone X, and let them publish their videos a day in advance of the official reviews”. It doesn’t look like it, but this is Frommer camouflaging his wrath. How do I know? Well, because then he goes like this: “These videos, published by channels including Booredatwork, Soldier Knows Best and sneaker blog Highsnobiety are a little braggy, mostly positive and don’t feel like gadget reviews at all. They’re not great videos, frankly.”

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Mark, from SoldierKnowsBest: not a journalist, but with his own iPhone X "review"

Frommer wasn’t alone. That day, John Gruber, an Apple evangelist who runs his own one-man-media-company called Daring Fireball, spent all of his Twitter-time grumbling and cursing: “Thank God Apple seeded Mike Allen with an iPhone X review unit. Such great insight from his fucking nephew, the emoji expert.”

This is not my area of expertise, but I believe insulting a 10-year old kid should be enough to draw a line. Apparently, it wasn’t: 24 hours later, Mashable took over, publishing its own resentment editorial masked as a regular story (Halloween, right?): “Apple learns to feed the hype for its iPhone X launch — and snubs a lot of important people”. The content was pretty much the same: as Recode pointed out, ten years ago, Steve Jobs selected a few very special people from Wall Street Journal, NY Times, USA Today and Newsweek to review the first iPhone, but now any YouTuber gets this sacred privilege whereas the special-people-of-2017 don’t.

All this backlash is — best case scenario — ironic. Fifteen years ago, none of these new media companies even existed. And when they started their “blog-thing”, most of the special-people-of-2002, from WSJ, NYT, USA Today and Newsweek, refused to treat them as serious journalism.

Part of me understands the sarcasm. Apple did sent the anticipated iPhone X to a bunch of… non-specialists. But that’s not the first time. And this wasn’t a solo move. In that same week, Microsoft shipped a lot of Xbox One X to YouTubers and “bloggers” — remember “bloggers”? — , while Razer selected some YouTube channels to feature the first hands-on with their new smartphone, including all the “non-specialists” who got the iPhone X.

I’ll put aside the fact that this is simply a business strategy, which means Apple, Microsoft, Razer and any other brand can disclose their products to whoever they want — by all accounts, this should be enough to wrap up the case. But let’s fantasize a world where these gadgets companies do have a moral obligation to the opinion leaders (just to be clear, they don’t). Even in this wonderland, so what if these YouTubers who got the iPhone X are not journalists? Seriously, so what if they’re not specialists?

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Here comes the 'specialist': Mashable's live coverage of iPhone X launch day

1) The good

Everybody loves Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail book & theory. I get that, I feel the same. It explains most of what happened to global economy, how Amazon became one of the top-25 companies worldwide in two decades, and even why media ventures such as Mashable or Recode thrived while centennial newspapers sank without the grace of salvation given by God. It also explains YouTubers.

There is no media company in the world — not even The New York Times and its 1,300 employees — big enough to provide all kind of news. Too bad for them the “readers” want sneaker reviews, make-up advice and photography tips — and I’m leaving out the crazy stuff. And sometimes (most of the time actually, who am I kidding?) these same “readers” couldn’t care less about the news, right Mashable? They just want to be entertained, and there are a bunch of YouTubers with great content who do that too. That’s how those video stars who, in theory have no special skills, became relevant — for millions of people (in that last example, 8.1 million to be exact), their opinions matter.

2) The bad

Naturally, there are some (real) botherations. First off, as YouTubers are not journalists most of them suck at interviews. They’re bad at asking, they’re bad at follow-ups, they’re bad at producing. Moreover there are plenty of examples in which they come up with a good idea — a documentary, a web series, a (sort of) talk-show — but they can’t get on with it.

Secondly, their platform is overly erratic. Believe it or not, content creators are underpaid — the video monetization benefits YouTube first, then YouTube, and only then YouTube. And the company policies can get dismally confusing every now and then — as in that case where some YouTubers couldn’t monetize videos in which they were trying to raise money for the victims of Las Vegas mass shooting. As a result, all these cash flow issues sometimes lead to some unduly flexible content, which is inadmissible in a “serious” newsroom.

3) The ugly

One second so we can put everything into perspective. It is not like some TV network cast half-dozen of YouTubers to report the Mogadishu attack that killed 300 people. It is a private tech corporation inviting whoever the hell it wants to show its new product. There’s nothing wrong with choosing one over the other and — that may sound shocking — there is no guarantee that your “journalistic” review will yield the expected result. So, next time it happens (because, despite all your heroic efforts, it will), give this topic the unpopular uprising it deserves, which is none.

Otherwise, at the end of the day, you’ll be nothing but one of those print media special-people-of-2002, walking through its halved newsroom, muttering that readers will buy newspapers again. Choose wisely, you don’t wanna be that guy.

Written by

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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