This past summer The New York Times op-ed section published a piece by Senator Tom Cotton, arguing for the United States government to deploy the military against Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The piece led to a dispute among NYT employees, with journalists tweeting about how the piece’s publication put Black journalists in danger—an internal uproar captured in a new New York Magazine piece by Reeves Wiedeman about the paper’s internal disagreements between old-school editors and a new class of journalists who see no problem with accurately labeling Donald Trump’s obvious racism as such in print.
But something that stood out to me in the piece is the nugget about how popular the newspaper’s problem-child Opinion section is. Wiedman writes:
What the audience wants most of all, apparently, is “Opinion.” On a relative basis, the section is the paper’s most widely read: “Opinion” produces roughly 10 percent of the Times’ output while bringing in 20 percent of its page views, according to a person familiar with the numbers. (The Times turned off programmatic advertising on the Cotton op-ed after some employees objected to the paper profiting off the provocation.)
And why is Opinion so popular? Because it often makes people mad. The New York Magazine article notes that a group of data scientists at the Times created a set of algorithms in 2018 that pinpointed what exact words in an article would induce hate in a reader versus what would induce happiness, with articles in the former category being more popular. Similarly, a 2013 study co-authored by writer Jonah Berger analyzing thousands of New York Times articles to see which made the “most e-mailed list” found that “while sadder content is less viral, content that evokes more anxiety or anger is actually more viral.” Ultimately “hate drives readership more than any of us care to admit,” a magazine employee told Wiedman.
Anyone who has worked in digital media for more than a day (and it might only be a day, considering how frequently outlets shutter and layoffs subsume embattled media workers) knows that outrage gets eyeballs. What’s a bit depressing is that no matter how much The New York Times positions itself as a member of the journalistic old-guard, it has not been able to escape an Internet that privileges hate-reading above all else. It’s this same Internet that has given rise to outlets like Thought Catalog, XOJane, and BroBible, old-school blogs who got high on the supply of essays from people ready to write about being happy their friend died and loving their privilege.
The difference, of course, between an outlet like Thought Catalog gleefully posting a rage-inducing op-ed and The New York Times is that one of them is the New York Times, with desks staffed with reputable reporters trying to do their jobs in the face of a presidential administration that degrades and denounces the work of the press at every turn. While editors at the paper may defend the op-ed section’s more harmful, incendiary posts as a product of the paper’s commitment to diverse thought, I suspect they know exactly how much they’re feeding the outrage beast, just like all the other dirtbag content blogs struggling to get clicks.