Speaking lightly of serious things and seriously of light ones is not only a motto every educated French men is bound to follow – at least if he was raised by the same grand father I had – it’s also an editorial online model which prospers on Internet. To the extent that it could be the piece of online puzzle without which no start-up could live long.
Meta-enabling journalism has been defined in a series of short tweets by Andrew Golis, Yahoo News editor, I will quote below in their chronological order (reversed to the order in the screen shot illustrating this post). Wait! We gonna discuss an editorial concept drafted in four 140 signs max long sentences? Yep, the world is changing, isn’t it?
The new online business that I’m most entertained by: meta-enabling. Meta-enabling = writing about lowbrow things in a highbrow way to get the pageviews without sacrificing the high-end ads or self-regard. I’m not necessarily opposed to it, can often be used for good. But I challenge anyone to think of a successful online start-up that doesn’t significantly rely on meta-enabling.
That’s it. The zen online news buddha has spoken and leaves us, small falling leaves lost in the wind, to decipher and discuss.
First, as a non-native English speaker, I turned to Steve to get the right meanings of highbrow and lowbrow. Highbrow means « intellectual », lowbrow means « popular », like in « pop-culture ». Second, the « meta » part doesn’t refer to the metadatas so useful for enhancing both your search engine optimisation and search engine marketing, but rather to the greek prefix used in English (and other Greek-owing languages) to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.
It involves a conscious consideration of the writing act over the final editorial product with the intention of highlighting the mechanism of writing in order to reveal the artificiality of the style, of the product, of the act of writing in itself.
Here it involves a conscious consideration of the writing act over the final editorial product with the intention of highlighting the mechanism of writing in order to reveal the artificiality of the style, of the product, of the act of writing in itself. Better said here when applied to blogging: « meta-enabling allows blogs to treat the way in which the posts are presented as the thesis of the post itself ».
If you think it’s not clear, try Roland Barthes.
French journalist Vincent Glad renamed meta-enabling journalism in « lol-journalism », turning the latter pejorative expression an old school colleague had used to qualify his work into a fully assumed journalistic method.
« lol » being the famous acronym for « laughing out loud » used in chats, forums, e-mails to express the locutor’s feeling of amusement, Vincent Glad defines the lol-journalist as the one who will maintain a constant level of lol (e.g. fun) in his articles. The lol-journalist walks on a thin editorial line framed by the seriousness of the subject and the seriousness of the angle. As Mr Glad explains, when covering the Greek crisis, the lol-journalist will favor an angle both entertaining and significant, such as the Greek fiscal administration discovering 16.976 swimming pools in a posh district of Athens, out of which only 324 were legally declared. On the other side of its thin editorial line, the lol-journalist will cover a trashy subject, say French soccer players having intercourse with an underage prostitute, under the angle of the media storm that exposed the escort girl in few hours thanks to the digital world we live in.
Here is a diagram, adapted from Mr Glad’s article, to illustrate the editorial concept.
Meta-enabling journalism keeps the money coming.
The reason Andrew Golis states that no online business model can escape meta-enabling journalism comes from the fact this editorial genre is a source of traffic (hence an audience to sell to the advertisers) which keeps advertisers satisfied and their brands safe from inappropriate content (there is always something serious, either the subject or the angle). Men being men, sex, gossip, and trash will be always favored to economics or politics. Maybe not by you, but by most of us. Yes, that makes you very special.
If you add intelligence in the most lowbrow subject (by being meta-enablingly smart and choosing an highbrow editorial angle for the story you’re writing) – the opposite achieving a similar result (covering a very serious subject with a very funny angle) – then you keep your content valuable and, as advertisers like to say, « qualitative ». Being qualitative is superior to being quantitative, as every bad looking guy would tell you. Of course, the best remains quality in quantity – which is brought by meta-enabling journalism.
Meta-enabling journalism works better if it’s part of an editorial mix rather than a 100% principle of production. It’s an interesting editorial way to bring attention to your website – and possibly to your more classical production.
The Gawker media group, which owns and runs the topical websites Gawker.com, Gizmodo.com, Kotaku.com, Jezebel.com, io9.com and lifehacker.com, is an obvious adept of meta-enabling journalism. Incidentally, the journalists’ salaries are correlated with the number of clics their articles get. It’s well possible you wouldn’t find their main topics serious enough. If you’re not into science-fiction, you may frown upon io9. Seriousness, just like beauty, belongs to the eyes of the beholder. Nevertheless, those websites are quite smart in their mix of the two editorial possibilities offered by meta-enabling journalism, hence satisfying a range of audience from the slightly interested casual reader (who would be caught by the angle) to the deep hard-core fan (who takes his subject very seriously but likes fun reading).
Of course, meta-enabling journalism works better if it’s part of an editorial mix rather than a 100% principle of production. It’s an interesting editorial way to bring attention to your website – and possibly to your more classical production.
As explained, meta-enabling is a tiny editorial line to follow and doesn’t concern all forms of entertainment writing. I personally find that the very appreciated TV RECAP (almost a new genre in itself) praised by The Awl don’t belong to this model.
Could it work for a European institution?
Meta-enabling journalism drives audience and I swear we’d love our main website to become more mainstream. When addressing the general public in our stories, the editors invest energy and talent in their writings to produce as clear and interesting content as our editorial strategy allows them to. This is far from being easy, as discussed many times on this blog.
First, by essence, the subjects we cover are almost exclusively super serious. Like in « democracy », « law making », « ruling the world » serious.
Spicing up our editorial mix with a bit of meta-enabling journalism could certainly bring new readers and sell some subjects better. It could also project a new light on the work, the actors, the influence of the European Parliament.
However, many obstacles prevent us to actually use this editorial model. First, by essence, the subjects we cover are almost exclusively super serious. Like in « democracy », « law making », « ruling the world » serious. The lol culture has not exactly reached our institution nor the people we work with (and for). Men in grey suits wearing ties in blue meeting rooms – not exactly your Mad Men atmosphere. We did publish lighter stories and we do try to produce more of them. We wrote about MEPs’ superstitions, their recommendations for Valentine’s Day, their Easter traditions. But none of those pieces could claim belonging to meta-enabling journalism.
The reasons those as-entertaining-as-we-can-afford stories have kind of faded away from our weekly editorial schedule are to be found in the extended powers of the European Parliament, with an increasing number of important subjects it is our duty to report on, and also our new social-media platforms. The tonality we can use on Facebook is certainly closer to « fun » and is less costly (in terms of resources and time) to produce.
As we ALL have experienced, people can’t tell when a regularly ironic person is being serious.
Another obstacle, very well spotted by The Awl, is the real nature of meta-enabling journalism: this is just a sophisticated form of irony adapted to our digital era, the « hallmark of our ironic, sarcastic, I-can’t-actually-tell-what-you-really-mean age and it *is* causing a problem. (…) As we ALL have experienced, people can’t tell when a regurarly ironic person is being serious. »
Irony doesn’t belong to our box of editorial pencils. Remember all our bragging about objectivity, accuracy, political balance? Right, they don’t match well with irony. EU affairs are complicated enough for our Latvian grandmother that we don’t add the mist of ironic writing. That wouldn’t help. Only insiders, EU Geeks and a happy few from the Brussels bubble would possibly get it.
Last but not least, the meta-enabling journalism is an author-oriented editorial genre. The virtuosity and skills of the writer make all the difference here. The genre satisfied perhaps more the writer than the readers. As civil servants, we are of course quite involved in our work. And we don’t hesitate to be proud of it but we also cultivate a significant self-discretion. The EP and the MEPs prevail. We don’t write for ourselves but for the general public. We don’t sign our stories.
Meta-enabling journalism, which I personally find extremely interesting and entertaining (when properly done) will have to be kept at bay from our editorial strategy. We’ll leave it to the first circle of EU followers and writers, who are in a better position than ours to fully take advantage of it.
And, well, we can always resort to it on this blog.
This post is part of a series about online editorial models.
Online editorial models #01 – Ours
Online editorial models #02 – Link journalism
Online editorial models #03 – Networked journalism
Online editorial models #04 – Media-enabling journalism aka lol-journalism
Online editorial models #05 – The Huffington Post case
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