IBT’s ice-nine effect on Newsweek

In his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut describes a fictitious substance called ice-nine: a crystalline form of water that converts all the liquid water it comes into contact with into more ice-nine. This is the sort of effect the International Business Times had on Newsweek, which, as Daniel Tovrov writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, went from being one of the ‘big three’ American news magazines to a lesser entity that can’t say why it exists within the last decade of its eighty-year – and counting – existence.

One big reason, apart from Newsweek editors’ continuing preference for page-views over informed reportage, is IBT’s ownership of the magazine from 2012 to 2018. IBT is a business, not a journalism organisation; it made its money through ads on its pages, and it got people to come see those ads and maybe click on a few by publishing a large volume of articles with clickbait headlines.

It’s certainly not alone in adopting this business model but what Tovrov leaves unsaid is that Google’s and Facebook’s – but especially Google’s – decisions to make this model profitable has allowed businesses like IBT to assume ownership of journalism organisations like Newsweek, running them aground. Like the ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle, it isn’t just that IBT was shot to hell but that Google empowered its employees – who are to blame here as much as Google itself – to consign other organisations it came into contact with to the same fate.

There’s even a distressing self-symmetry to this story; to quote Tovrov:

… Jeffrey Rothfeder, our Editor-in-Chief, said that the clickbait would bring in revenue while hard-news reporting would build our reputation. Much of Newsweek’s current disorder was incubated in those early days of IBT, when we were still figuring out how digital journalism would work. We quickly learned that the patience of the owners, who own Newsweek today, was short. I witnessed incredible journalists lose their jobs over inconsistent traffic, despite editors’ best efforts to save them by shifting them from desk to desk to avoid detection.

There’s a ‘moral of the story’ moment tucked away here about a causal link – which wasn’t so obvious until BuzzFeed’s famous failure came along in January this year – between the gambler’s conceit of adopting the CPM model and the eventual ruin the model brings to newsroom practices. The best safeguard would be to have editors empowered to hit the brakes but by that time the organisation has likely changed in a way that that’s too much to ask for.

Many of us adopted the strategy of using a pseudonym to [cook up stories] when we needed quick hits. The owners and editors were fine with this, but a CMS update created automated bylines and ended the practice. It was in this era that, due to a contagious morale problem, IBT management added a carrot to go along with the stick: traffic bonuses.

It seems Newsweek – of all the publications possible – today exemplifies the worst of what happens when publishers sink more money into the ads-based CPM model of generating revenue: the newsroom becomes yet another late-capitalism enterprise whose employees fight for a sliver of the pie while their work lands significant chunks in the hands of its owners. It’s also a sign of how dependent the magazine is on Google that (a part of) Newsweek‘s existing staff is optimistic Google’s new changes to its ranking algorithm, to prioritise original in-depth reportage over recycled material, will make their jobs more enjoyable.