What We’re Reading: The Weird Future of News, Our Disneyfied Lives, and Apple’s War on Ads

In case you missed it, last week we killed our long running Content Catchup series for a new one: What We’re Reading. Here’s the basic idea:

Since we typically don’t break news on TCS, a lot of our story ideas come from understanding how the worlds of content marketing, media, advertising, journalism, and pop culture fit together. We’re constantly sharing links in our team’s Slack channel, links that spark debates, impact what we write on TCS, and shape how we think about content marketing as a whole.

Every Friday, we’ll be rounding up the best (somewhat relevant) articles we’ve read that week, with a quick summary on why we felt compelled to share them.

This week we got a little dark.

Joe and Dillon dive into the confusing, anxiety-ridden mishmash of tech, media, and content; Sam shares an amazing but depressing piece of creative writing about Disneyland and contemporary culture with one of the best headlines we’ve ever seen; Shane recommends a fantastic (and kind of gross) piece of gummy bear journalism; and Ann takes a look at Apple’s continuing assault on advertising. Luckily, we have Jordan and George Saunders to cheer us up at the end with some great writing advice.


The Awl: Extremely Public Relations

Selected by Joe Lazauskas, director of editorial

Did you miss the delightful round two of the battle royale between Amazon and The New York Times this week? 64 days after The Times published a scathing expose of Amazon’s brutal workplace, the tech giant responded with a Medium post by PR head John Carney refuting the report and accusing The Times of bad journalism—because, you know, why not remind everyone of the worst press you’ve gotten in years?

The Times quickly fired back with an open letter to Carney, again on Medium, and we had ourselves a battle.

And then there was John Hermann, our media-reporter man crush here at Contently, who saw it as representative of something bigger: the brewing press vs. tech war. Tech knows it doesn’t need the media to tell its story anymore, while the press is fearful of a world where tech controls all, and this is only going to get more vicious:

There’s blood in the water. Tech knows it’s winning. It no longer seems unreasonable to suggest that the press, as it exists today, could be demolished and replaced with something very different. Tech will become bolder in its denouncements of the preexisting press; the press will return the favor, maybe. Or just clown itself to an early grave! For the time being, the market favors one outcome; the networks through which it will come to pass resemble this market; the means of production blah blah, attention, something. Every dispute over the particulars of a news story, or the way it is distributed, eventually arrives here, in this big enormous mess.

Tech now firmly controls the pipes through which we’re fed content; the press knows they need to fight back on myriad fronts. Hermann evaluates all the fascinating possibilities in this deep take, and it’s a must-read for anyone who works in this weird content-tech wonderworld.

Digiday: Now Apple Is Warning People About Clicking Ads

Selected by Ann Fabens-Lassen, communications manager

In the latest news on Apple’s complete indifference to what advertisers think, Digiday is reporting one of the biggest attacks on ads by the company yet. Apple has already allowed for mobile adblockers on the latest version of Safari; now, in the unlikely event that a person actually clicks on an ad in its new News app, Apple has a pop-up that warns you that you’re leaving News and makes you click again to go to the ad. Basically, it’s the kiss of death for banner ads already attracting little to no clicks (or touches, in this case).

What’s interesting to me is that publishers love Apple News, partly because they get 70 percent to 100 percent of ad revenue (depending on whether they run the ads themselves or let Apple take over). I wonder how far Apple will be able to push before brands aren’t willing to advertise on the platform at all. It’ll also be interesting to see how the Google equivalent of Apple News/Facebook Instant Articles handles advertising, considering that the company is much more dependent on ad revenue.

The New York Times Lab: The Future of News Is Not an Article

Selected by Dillon Baker, associate editor

When The New York Times released the interactive feature Snow Fall in 2012, many saw it as the next step in journalism. GIFs, embedded video, interactive charts! Pretty! But the revolution hasn’t really come.

While most feature articles nowadays at big news organizations like Bloomberg or this incredible feature by The Intercept on Drone Warfare make use of innovative formatting similar to Snow Fall, these kind of pieces are still the exception rather than the rule. And it looks like The New York Times is shifting their attention to a new vision of digital news.

Interestingly, this reimagining of news in the digital era is uncannily similar to what is already trying to do[note]In fact, the article mentions the rise of “explainer journalism”, Vox’s signature style, without mentioning Vox explicitly.[/note]—constantly updating, living articles on big topics are Vox’s “card stacks“, and the idea of a CMS with news “particles” for journalists to easily organize and access previous reporting sounds very similar to the capabilities of Vox Media’s famed Chrous platform.

The problem, as Vox editor-in-chief Erza Klein laid out in a previous article about Facebook Instant Articles, is that the move to publishing native content on social networks blocks this kind of innovation:

But innovation will slow. The case for massive editorial investment that only benefits the on-platform readership will weaken. The big publishers — at least those that sell scale to advertisers rather than subscriptions to a loyal audience — will become like wire services that operate across many platforms. And like the wire services of today, that will make them absolutely essential, but it will also keep them from being as experimental as was possible when they controlled their own platforms.

The New York Times mentions native publishing on Facebook briefly at the beginning of the article, but goes on to detail their vision without really addressing the elephant in the room. Any sort of explanation as to why Klein’s (seemingly prescient) idea of news as a wire service to social media platforms won’t happen isn’t given, which makes it difficult to take anything that comes after seriously. Perhaps, frighteningly, there is no explanation to give.[note]John Hermann of The Awl goes in depth on this issue as well, if you’re interested.[/note]

Vice: Sugarless Gummy Bears Are Not Safe for Humans

Selected by Shane Snow, cofounder and CCO

This is an oldie but a goodie… about goodies. I reread it this week after our Operations Manager sent a company email about Haribo Gummy Bears. We need more of this kind of brave, plucky-writer-in-the-middle-of-the-action reporting in today’s journalism.

Twitter and email have turned us all into antisocial reporter weenies. Journalism used to be about LOITERING. Hanging out in police offices, war zones. Dangling from the fire escape by your foot to get the shot of the gang fight. Journalism is about eating the diarrhea gummy bears, not taking ViralNova’s word for it!

Matter: Burning Down the Mouse

Selected by Sam Slaughter, VP of content

I really enjoyed this Heather Havrilesky essay about taking her kids to Disneyland. It speaks to how our entire lives have been Disney and Facebook-ified into this weird and public display of forced happiness and entertainment. Or, as she puts it:

We’re all plugged into a shiny, down-home, buoyant, authentic-seeming global simulacrum, one that not only doesn’t belong to us, but bleeds us of our sanity, our money, and our privacy and sells it off to the highest bidder.

The New Yorker: My Writing Education: A Time Line

Selected by Jordan Teicher, senior editor

To me, the best writing advice doesn’t feel like advice. Instead of spoon-feeding tips and tricks to the reader in this essay, George Saunders embeds takeaways in vignettes about his struggles and brief triumphs as an MFA student and, later, a technical writer for various companies, before he became a prolific author.

Reading the article didn’t make me want to write like Saunders; it made me want to think like him when approaching my work, which is much more useful. Saunders had teachers who helped him see that he needed to patiently find his own voice—even if he had to wait over a decade to do so. Anyone with a creative job will appreciate the candor in this story about what it takes to make a living telling stories.

Image by USBFCO/

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