The world of film writing and entertainment journalism is going down a very odd path: but there has to be a better way forward.
It might be the bad pizza that I had earlier, but I believe I have something to say. Or rather, I have something to say that I believe in.
Strap in, this might get a little bumpy.
A week or two back, I penned a short piece on this site, written in jest but trying to make a point about the current state of film writing online (as is this). It’s been drawn to my attention that this piece may have upset some of the people generating the kind of pieces I was pulling the leg of, and this bothered me quite a lot.
No offence was intended, and the whole thrust of what I’m trying to say is aimed not at the people playing the game (of which I am one), but at the game itself.
Still, for the avoidance of doubt, I want to put this upfront: there are brilliant young, upcoming and established writers out there that I’m genuinely in awe of. None of this is a personal dig at you.
But I do have some things to say.
At heart, I believe the state of online entertainment writing leaves something to be desired at the moment. That whilst there are excellent pieces out there, they’re being dwarfed under a cavalcade of clickbait.
I also believe it doesn’t have to be like that.
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and about what the core issues are. And if I can distill it down to the bare basics, I’d summarise it as this: we need to remember what’s the tail, what’s the dog, and what’s supposed to be wagging what. It is not the last time you’re going to hear that analogy.
There aren’t conversations unique to entertainment writing – heck, just look at transfer rumour season in the world of sports – but this is my area of particular interest, so I’m going to focus on that.
If we go back to the earliest vestiges of online film writing, the pre-Google era, you see such material at its purest. For better or worse, certainly, but the earliest film websites were given over to people just saying what they wanted to say, how they wanted to say it.
There was no due consideration to how it’d look on a social media post, or whether something would rank in Google. It was a more innocent era, where you could write something and hope that it might bubble up. If you were lucky, you might get listed in the Yahoo! directory, and that’d help your readership. Still, different times.
The advent of Google, and its fairly fast dominance, has fundamentally changed entertainment writing, and not for the better. Because realistically, any entertainment website needs traffic, and the biggest source of that traffic tends to be via search engines. With no traffic from Google, websites struggle.
Then there’s the other part of the Google effect: how it changed the advertising market. The biggest players in online advertising are Google and Facebook, and if you want to benefit from either, you need to play by their rules. Those rules keep changing. But still: there’s a circle at play here. That you need traffic via Google to bring numbers to your advertising, often provided by Google, and, well, it’s like ‘Circle Of Life’ from The Lion King, just not as good.
Underpinning all of this, in order to get your website recognised more prominently by Google, you need to deploy SEO techniques, or search engine optimisation.
Wag the dog
I’ve a huge amount of time for SEO specialists. I’ve clumsily put across my frustrations in this area before, and I’m very aware I’ve caused very unintended offence. I’ll come back to that later.
There’s a big potential upside here: SEO done properly gives writers and editors the knowledge they need to write what they want to write, but also to be aware of what their audience and the broader ecosystem is wanting.
But going back to basics again, I feel that SEO should be the tail, and not the metaphorical dog. Still, I currently consider things being that way round marks the exception, and not the norm.
Consider articles such as these, as examples:
- Is so and so in such and such a film?
- Is such and such a film on such and such a streaming service?
- How to watch such and such a film
- How many awards has such a person won?
- In which order should I watch this collection of films that have numbers in their titles?
I’ve seen examples of these kinds of articles across multiple sites over the last year, and what they have in common is this: the answer to the question posed is actually a sentence at best. In some cases, just a word.
In the early days of the internet, nobody would even think to write an article like that, because, realistically, why would you need to? Who does it help? Who actually wants it?
Well, these are direct responses to questions being posted to Google. As such, there’s clearly an argument there that people do want to know the answer, and rightly so. But the problem is that the answer that’s being served up needs to be at least 4-500 words or so, else Google has concluded it’s not weighty material. Were you to pose such a question in an article, and answer it in a sentence – as, surely, is warranted at best – then Google holds you back. Add in a ton of waffle – some of it sometimes entertaining, certainly – and it’s deemed a better article. Not by a human, but by a computer.
Also, if you want to keep readers on the page for as long as possible, then you don’t give the answer to whatever question you’ve posed at the start. You need to keep people on the page, as that boosts the metrics you can take out to advertisers. Look! Our readers spend on average a minute or two on every page! Pop it on the Powerpoint, and press send.
Thus, the sometimes single word answer to the question has a horrible habit of arriving 400 words in. And that’s the reason why.
My question here is: how is all of this good for readers? We’ve arrived at a way of entertainment reporting which is generating articles that are suggested by a computer, and presented in a way that a computer wants to read. We’re writing pieces because a computer tells us, and we’re then writing them in the way the computer wants. Surely nobody would come up with a system like this by design, yet we’ve evolved to the point where, well, here we are.
Articles are thus broken down into multiple subheads and search terms, because that makes it clearer for the computer to process. The actual human being who’s supposed to read all of this comes surprisingly low down the food chain.
I really think that’s wrong.
Let’s look at another type of article:
- Everything we know about a film that’s out in a year or so and not much is actually known about it
Now I’ve seen these kind of pieces be written and actually be really useful. But the majority of the time – and again, I’ve written my fair share, so I’m just as fallible here – they’re about gaming the system to my eyes. It’s about the clicks. It’s not about the readers. Once again, I think that’s wrong.
Human V Computer: Dawn Of Justice
SEO should be, to my eyes, a support mechanism. A way to guide writers and editors, to give insight into what readers are interested in and looking for.
But it’s turned the other way around: the demands of SEO at a growing number of outlets are the most important thing. To continue the analogy, SEO is wagging the dog, and it’s not been to the benefit of the articles themselves.
Here comes the twist, though. Because the irony of all of this is that many of us have spent many hours generating work that’ll rank better in Google, and Google is about to pull the rug from under everyone’s feet anyway.
Google is now heavily testing its new artificial intelligence-driven search engine, where basically it’s just going to take chunks of our work and – to my eyes – present it as its own, with no due credit.
The way this’ll work is that you’ll put your question or search term into its system, and Google’s AI of choice will generate a response on the search page itself. The search result will be an amalgamated article, and not a list of results. It won’t require you to click anywhere else, the AI system will probe the online world and generate an article by way of response.
For sites that have chased the way Google wants them to work, surely that’s the ultimate betrayal. Google isn’t even going to give you the click anymore.
Instead, its AI system – and again, this is my opinion, I’m not stating this as unimpeachable fact – will collate other people’s work, and present it as its own. Without payment or credit to those who put the work in. Some have called this institutional plagiarism, but I can’t afford to suggest that. I can say I find it hugely alarming.
AI, after all, works by learning based on what humans have already written. You ask it for everything it knows about The Batman 2, and it’s not going to come up with the answers itself. It’s not going to put a call into Warner Bros HQ, assuming Warner Bros hasn’t completed the film and then deleted it. It’s going to interrogate work others have done, and build something out of what it finds.
Google was supposed to be the friend of quality material. Now it’s just helping itself, and giving decreasing amounts back, again in my opinion. Huge outlets are responding in predictable ways by not standing up to this, but instead cutting costs and deploying AI themselves. Writers are collateral damage.
The SEO-driven articles that I was lampooning the other week – and will continue to do so, because at least it gets a conversation going – are the first in line to be taken away from the people who are writing them. The problem of having to write an article a computer has effectively suggested, presented in a way that a computer wants, is eventually the computer can do that itself. And it already is.
Where, then, does that leave the writer? And how does that improve what the reader gets at the end of it all?
You can fill in those answers yourselves.
At this stage, I’m going to break the article up with a picture of a squirrel, because that’s something no AI system would suggest.
In spite of all of this – and yeah, it’s the stuff that runs through my head at uncomfortable times of the day – I’m a glass half full person. I think, fundamentally, that human beings will always be able to do things that a computer can’t. And I think we need to let them. If anything, there’s a huge opportunity here to reseize the initiative, for outlets brave enough to do so. It’s inevitably got to come from the top, and if it doesn’t, then writers can have little sway over it. Plus, a lot of the changes in this industry are uncharted waters. There’s a lot to lose.
Still, this piece ultimately builds to a manifesto of sorts. Just a few guiding tenets that I think should stick at the heart of entertainment writing. It’s my personal way forward, and other views are available. But I think some of us have to make a stand, and this is my contribution to the ongoing debate.
Here, then, are some key principles I believe can underpin a better environment for writers, and – most importantly of all – for readers.
A reader is much more important than a click
In a world where web advertising is more programmatic than ever (if you’re unfamiliar with programmatic advertising, then this Wikipedia page has the gist), getting as many people through the metaphorical door is seen as top priority.
Still, I’ve always seen it as this: a click is someone who comes to your site once, because you’ve lured them in with something, and not penned something tailored to them. A reader is someone who will come back. They might like the tone, the writing style, the ethos, whatever. But they’ll give you a second click, maybe even a third. They might even spread the word.
In short: readers are priceless, clicks are for sale. You can also buy clicks, but you can’t buy readers.
If you want an audience that has your back, you ain’t going to get it by chasing clicks. And if clicks are your top priority, then you’re always hostage to whatever the next round of changes Google/Twitter/Facebook et al introduce. Talking of which…
Let’s stop pretending that Google is our friend. And turnips.
Google has done many good things in its existence. But it’s also a business, and a business whose balance sheet deals with billions. As much as it invents and implements complex algorithms to try and determine whether Article A or Article B is more relevant and better quality, it’s never going to actually read either. It’s got too much money to consider employing someone to read things.
Google may champion your work one day, and then update its algorithm and penalise you the next. And that’s if it’s not getting an AI system to take your writing away anyway.
A small thing: if I put the word turnips in the midst of this, that’s something AI is never going to do, and Google is never going to read or notice. But a man and a turnip obsession at least gives you a clue that there’s a human behind this. That it’s been written for a human too, and not to bend to an algorithm.
Cling on to what’s human. Treat with some degree of suspicion what a major international multi-billion dollar conglomerate is suggesting you do. This goes doubly so for social media services run by individuals who would struggle to urinate on you should you happen to be on fire.
The smaller you go, the more difference you can make
I love a good Marvel movie, and I’m not alone. Give me a huge blockbuster that actually delivers, and I’m a very happy person. Write about any of these, and you’re firing a tiny dart onto a massive, massive board. Still, I’ve penned lots of stuff about Marvel films, but I always try and make sure I’ve got something to say before I do.
However, the Marvel machine does not need you. The box office of a big superhero film will not be in the slightest bit affected by your review/your feature/your ending explained article. If you write ten Marvel articles, then you’re at best adding to a discourse, and hopefully having some kind of conversation.
Were you, though, to write seven Marvel article and then three pieces about a trio of smaller, independent films, then that changes the potential of what your words can do.
I’m not very well versed with ice hockey, but I do hold close the mantra of a famous player of the sport, Wayne Gretzy. A legend of the sport, he was asked as to the secret of his success. He said that “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.
Filmmaker Kevin Smith evolved and paraphrased this slightly, when he talked about going where the puck isn’t.
As much as it’s very, very overused, and as much as it should be banned from PowerPoint presentations and LinkedIn posts for all time, I think there’s something to it. The idea of looking where everyone else is, and taking a different path, immediately gives you a distinction. You might not attract the same level of traffic as you would with an ending explained piece, but you might just begin to build an audience of readers who see you’re trying to go a bit above and beyond.
Backing and highlighting smaller productions also solves a common complaint amongst film writers: one of access. When the junket for a Marvel film comes along, the majority of outlets are left battling out for a six minute interview slot with someone. With an independent filmmaker, or even a smaller scale studio film, you might actually get a conversation. A proper conversation, that pulls out material you simply can’t get in a conventional junket environment.
If we want our writing to make some kind of difference somewhere along the line, then sometimes, we need to be willing to recalibrate our crosshairs a little.
And who knows? That filmmaker with a small new film that they can’t get access to might then land the major studio picture you want to see too. Filmmakers have a habit of remembering who took the time to shine light on their films when nobody else was.
Know whose side you’re on
I get on really well with lots of PR people. I get on really well with some filmmakers. I get on really well with some marketing people too.
But what I write isn’t for them. And what they do isn’t a benevolent gesture towards me.
My compass, for instance, when I’m writing a movie review is directed at the reader. I try to envisage the person who perhaps can go to the movies once a month at best, for either time or financial reasons, or both. Thus, if I’m recommending a film, that’s who I’m thinking of. My loyalty has to be to the reader. That doesn’t mean being an arse to everyone else. But without readers, we who write about film are nothing.
Here is a picture of a bunny rabbit
He’s called Norman. If you’ve got this far, prove it by going and saying hello to Norman in the comments.
SEO is not an enemy
Given the way this piece has gone, you might be expecting it to end with a rage, and a desire to consign SEO to the recycle bin. But absolutely not. SEO, properly deployed, is a brilliant way to underpin an article. Used properly, it gets you thinking about how someone is going to actually work through a piece at the end of it all too.
I give a shout out here to Elizabeth, who I used to work with, who was joyously brilliant when it came to SEO. That she would come up with ideas and intelligence on what people were looking for, and encouraged us to find our spins, find our articles, to use it as a jumping off point.
I should note at this point that she’s someone I’ve accidentally offended through my attempts to discuss all of this before, and I remain apologetic about that. Absolutely was neither my intent nor my belief. Comfortably one of my clumsier days, and not one I’m proud or happy about.
Good SEO can – indeed, should – make articles better, easier to read, more relevant, all without harming what you want to say. Properly deployed, it’s rocket fuel. Badly deployed, it’s clickbait, and the generator of the kind of articles I was talking about earlier.
You have your name. Look after it.
There’s a service called Muckrack, which is both very handy and very chastening at times. It’s a reminder that anything a published writer puts out there with their name on will usually stick around.
I’ve dedicated a good decade of my writing life to two individual publications, one of which is no longer with us, one of which is under fresh ownership. Neither needs me, and the second I left both, the phone calls and emails went elsewhere.
Twice I’ve had to rebuild from scratch, and I’ve learned as I get older that if you look after your name, and what you put your name to, it makes that very difficult process a tiny bit easier.
You don’t always – in fact you usually don’t at all – control the outlets who publish your work. You do control your name.
You also do control what you love. Wherever you can, write about that. And put your name to it.
It’s all about people
Bottom line, the fundamental core of what we do: no matter how much people may seek to persuade us otherwise, it’s all about human beings. The human stuff in our brains that no computer would predict. The human eyes and brain who digest our work. They don’t ‘consume content’. They read articles. They listen to podcasts. They watch videos.
If ever you see an analytics dashboard, telling you how many people are reading this that or the other, bear in mind: the vast majority of those numbers equate to human beings. And it’s human beings that matter.
You may disagree with all of this. You may think I’m a horrible person. You may think I’ve read the world wrong. I can’t stop you thinking those things. But I can tell you this: I really care about all of this.
Also: I absolutely acknowledge that we all need to work. I’ve been happy in work where I’ve been writing what needs to be written. It’s a heavily oversaturated market, and full time jobs are gold dust. If I had one that was all about writing, I’d cling to it, and build from within.
And if it’s any consolation, the version of the game I ultimately believe in is already lost. It’s gone. There’s no sign of it coming back. To a degree, I’m the loser here.
But still: that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe in something I feel would be fundamentally better.
I want to end here.
The vast majority of us who get into writing do it because we love it, and somewhere deep down, we’ve got something to say. That, sadly has a horrible habit of meeting the reality of having to pay the bills, and thus there’s always the list of things you have to do, and the list of things you want to do. I think that’s pretty common with most jobs, and lots of us work with that trade off to various degrees.
That said, I still believe that a good chunk of our industry has lost sight of human beings. That it’s people who matter, and people are at the receiving end of what’s put out.
A human being doesn’t ask for ‘content’. They ask for a film, or a TV show, or a book, or a game. A human being asks a yes/no question with the not unreasonable idea that they might get a yes/no answer. A human being wants to be entertained, wants to be engaged, wants to be informed, sometimes wants to be surprised.
That, and a human being wants to find outlets that feel like they get them to some degree. This may not be one of them, granted.
On the other side of things, a human being can do things that AI and algorithms struggle with. Humans are funny. Humans can take handbrake turns in their writing, build an argument, put their heart and soul into their work, and give people a reason to engage with them, and want to read more of what they put into the world.
I fear we’re losing that a little. I’m not convinced that anyone who’s not running a search engine or social media platform would actually choose the path we’re taking by design. Yet here we are.
There’s a reason why I pull the leg of overtly clickbait articles, no matter how well they’re written (and boy, do I admire the people who manage to burst energy and enthusiasm into such pieces): because I don’t think, at heart, they’re for human beings. I think they’re built for a computer.
If we’ve learned anything from watching too many sci-fi movies underage, it’s that eventually the computer will turn on you. Looking at Google’s AI plans, perhaps in this instance it already has.
It may be a battle lost, and I may be the dinosaur. But if what we do is to have any kind of notable future, it’s time to stop chasing the computer. It’s time to find the humans again. It’s time for SEO to stop wagging the dog. And it’s time to randomly throw the word turnip into a few more articles.
Thanks for reading. Genuine apologies in advance if any of this has got your back up. That’s not the intent at all. I just think we’re sleepwalking into this algorithm-driven way of writing, and I think we’re long overdue a course change.
Let us, then, start a revolution. Let us start a revolution that is not just about clickbait, or search terms.
We cannot sleepwalk. We cannot just survive, anything goes. We can take control of our lives, we can quit sleepwalking, we can say – right now, these are our lives, it is time to start living it.
(And if this hasn’t scared you off, and you want to support the print writing that we put into the world, you can do so here).
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