Lion, Link Baiting & the world of Tech Journalism

The People vs. Joshua Schnell

When my friend Joshua Schnell, Editor in Chief of Macgasm, believes in something, he throws himself into it and he’s not afraid of a fight. I’ve tried to get him to calm down, I swear, but he tends to go into every situation ready for action. One thing I hope he never does, however, is back off from something he feels sure of, even if he’s the only one. A journalist’s bankability is his reputation for telling it like it is, even in the wild frontier of Internet blogging. When Josh started making noise about OS X 10.7 and its issues, I paid attention… because if there’s one person who’s watched the long timeline of OS X releases closely and critically, it’s him. As I got my own hands dirty with the latest of Apple’s Mac OS upgrades, I found myself seeing what Josh saw, and I said so.

Interestingly, an editorial published by Mark Bernstein on September 12 attempted to drag Josh out of his cave by the ankle and paint a scarlet letter on his chest, only instead of an “A” (as in the classic novel), these letters would be “LB”, for “Link Baiter”. Bernstein (briefly) puts Josh’s criticisms of Lion under the microscope, then spends the rest of the editorial talking about how Josh (and others) would only criticize Lion in order to pull traffic to a site. It’s an all-or-nothing perspective that simplifies the tech industry journalism efficiently, but does so with a very specific agenda.

Bernstein doesn’t use the term “Link Baiting”, but that’s what he’s talking about. It’s a technique used by bloggers to create headlines and content that play to search engines instead of readers: Keywords are entered into the title, the content text, the image alt tags, the URL and the metadata that will draw attention from search engines as well as Twitter bots. When the reader arrives on the page, the article tends to be much ado about nothing: No data, no evidence, no informed commentary. This is the implied accusation from Bernstein (and if I’m wrong, why cite Josh’s name at all?). Surprisingly (and unfortunately) at no point does Bernstein deal directly with the single most important criteria in identifying a link baiter from the real deal: Are the arguments supported with evidence? Could Josh’s assessment of Lion be correct? That topic never comes up. Criticism without data, evidence, or informed commentary.

Link baiting, indeed.

Paper Tigers & Other Tricks

Digging into the key points of the article, Bernstein presents a lot of little logic tricks to cast shadows where they wouldn’t normally fall. Example: The article says “Macgasm is apparently trying to drum up traffic by running articles critical of Lion.” In fact, there’s no “apparently” to it. Every professional web publication attempts to bring eyes to its content because, without readership, the publication cannot survive.  It’s just as accurate to say “Macgasm is trying to drum up traffic by running articles”, period. It’s fun to surreptitiously frame traffic-building strategies as somehow out-of-touch with journalistic integrity, but it’s also naive and unfair. In other words: I see what you did there.

The article goes on to sprawl out well beyond the scope of just Macgasm, however, and touches generously upon the tech journalism industry in general (and even the mechanics of the tech industry itself). As it does, the coherency of Bernstein’s argument about OS X critique as link baiting begins to unravel further. Take a look:

“Operating systems are big. They interact with everything. And they’re new, so they are a blame magnet.”

Yes, operating systems are big, interact with everything on your computer, and start out as new. And if they’re a blame magnet, there’s a reason for that: Apple is not new to the operating system game. When they set out to create a major point update for OS X, they know what it’s supposed to do. Hell, it was Apple that set their own standard. If the upgrade introduces bugs, breaks compatibility, slows down your computer or adds weird UI features, the operating system becomes a blame magnet because it’s usually the operating system’s fault. It’s like incredulously calling a criminal an “Arrest Magnet”.

Is there, however, a level of “reasonable glitching” that early adopters must swallow when they move to an OS upgrade? Of course. Even operating systems with years of refinement under the hood still have screws to tighten, and no reasonable tech writer would argue otherwise. Yet, if a new OS slows your system down, hampers workflow or introduces bugs then it’s the job and responsibility of a credible tech journalist to let readers know. After all, its not as though Apple gives a discount on the price of system software until the bugs are worked out.

“Underneath this, there’s a very interesting question: when should you ship an operating system? If you take an extra month, you can fix more things, implement more features, tweak more graphics – and you also defer revenue for a month…”

It’s an interesting question, especially when you consider that you’ll get a different answer based on who you’re talking to. Ask a corporate entity when they should ship their newest product, and the answer will almost perfectly reflect Bernstein’s priorities: Every month that you delay shipping is a month in which nobody is paying for the product. Hence why the tech industry trend of shipping software that’s essentially still in its beta stage has become de rigueur; it’s more appealing for a corporation to ship with bugs and fix later than it is to finish a product and lose a month (or months) of profit.

I defy you, however, to find a single consumer who wants the same thing the corporation wants. It may be old fashioned in this day and age to say “I don’t give a damn about your profit margin. Don’t ask me to pay for a product you know isn’t finished”, but the salient question isn’t whether Apple is happy with the profits. The question is if Lion is beyond logical, expert critique, and Bernstein did not offer any solid reasons why it should be.

“The way you get attention and make money – not much money – in this game is to start flame wars, and so ‘Apple ships lousy operating system! Scroll bars backwards! Apple doomed!’ gets links and traffic and sells ads for off-brand iPad cases.” 

Bernstein seems to be saying the only reason anyone ever says anything online is to bolster ad revenue (I guess the part where his blog advertises his own book for $39.95 must be an exception to this truism). In an Internet era where link baiting is rife, you can almost understand the cynicism if not for the fact that paid journalists are doing real journalism on the Internet, and we do ourselves a disservice by writing them off. Instead of cynicism, why not invite a reader to look at a controversial or questionable headline and ask “how does the writer prove this and what evidence does he/she present?” It quickly separates the wheat from the chaff.

As a writer here at Macgasm, I invite you to always ask that question of every article we publish here… and also ask it when you read Bernstein’s dismissal of the tech journalism industry. If you do, you’ll have no problem knowing who to trust.

Corey has been been a tech journalist with a focus on Apple since 1998 and has written for The Loop, MacHome magazine, and as games contributor for The Mac Bible, and co-hosts the iGame Radio Podcast. He works as a… Full Bio