As a marketing officer and online media buyer for American Apparel, Ryan Holiday has bought millions of dollars in advertising. But he has gained a reputation for the hoaxes and pranks (more on media deceptions) that gained free publicity for his company (as well as Tucker Max, the author/professional lout he’s advised on media strategies). There’s a back story on the animus between the Gawker blogs and American Apparel owner Dov Charney, but when Holiday wanted some free advertising, he turned to the Gawker blog Jezebel.
Posing as an employee willing to leak company materials, he offered photos from American Apparel photo shoots that he said were banned from advertising in publications. Thinking they had a scoop, Jezebel staff posted the photos and invited its female, predominantly feminist readership to be outraged. Many were. But at the end of the day, Holiday succeeded in getting the blog to drive readers to view otherwise unused photos. Jezebel benefitted from the traffic the post drew regardless of whether staff checked out the source or not. American Apparel got a lot of exposure without having to pay for it in the form of advertising.
It seems relatively harmless, but Holiday had caught on to how corruptible journalism, particularly blogs and online journalism, can be. To prove his point, he went on the website Help A Reporter Out (HARO), and responded to queries as a source on various topics. He was soon quoted in a New York Times piece about collecting vinyl records (which he doesn’t do), on a website about boatcare, in CBS in a story about embarrassing office stories, etc. He appeared in many news stories and shared bogus information on things he knew little or nothing about. His point: reporters never sought to verify his identity or anything about his credibility as a source. What does he have to say about his attempts to expose the media’s practices:
“People are lucky my intentions are to sell T-shirts,” he says. He finds placing bogus information on blogs and in major publications and broadcasts alarmingly easy.
Holiday moved to New Orleans 15 months ago to write Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. It’s actually a critique of the what’s wrong with journalism and the problems intrinsic to the transformation to the Internet driving news coverage. The book was released two weeks ago, and he signs copies at Octavia Books today at 6 p.m. His thoughts on the decline of The Times-Picayune after the jump.
In an interview, Holiday addressed some of the problems he sees with changes at The Times-Picayune. He believes a full conversion to online-only distribution is inevitable, and that abandoning the subscription model is a fatal flaw. He says that websites respond to click counts, and that they necessarily reorient themselves toward a “quest for virality,” in which it doesn’t matter what the content is, so long as it draws attention from the worldwide web, and who the reader is matters far less than the total number of viewers. “Creating good numbers is not the same as creating good journalism,” he says.
Holiday says many media startups want to build up an Internet presence and sell the operation to a “rich sucker” in a few years, rather than create an institution with long term credibility. He sites The Huffington Post, which he has written for, and Business Insider as examples.
On some media issues, he even sounds like Treme creator and veteran reporter David Simon, who wrote about reporting in Gambit.
Quality reporting matters, Holiday says.
“It’s all a revolving door now,” he says. “No one develops a beat. People don’t have experience with what they’re reporting on. They don’t develop sources.”
Instead, they find sources instantly online.
The blogosphere is worse. At some papers, reporters and bloggers are expected to post eight or more times a day. The crush of generating so much content lowers the bar for what’s newsworthy or relevant and makes thorough reporting difficult. It’s an environment ripe for a manipulator to plant information, or get free advertising by framing content as newsworthy. There also are plenty of blogs and sites where the quid pro quo is far more dirty and direct, he says.
Holiday isn’t in the journalism profession and isn’t trying to be. So why did he spend a year researching his book and three months writing it?
“The media is important,” he says. “We give it our time. We make decisions based on it. It can’t be hopelessly corrupt.”