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Wednesday, June 13,2007

That's Farkin Right!

How mass media tries to pass off crap as news

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Drew Curtis doesn’t look like much of a media mogul sitting here in Aunt Bee’s Country Restaurant in the backwoods of Kentucky, but then Fark.com isn’t a normal media outlet. Tomorrow he’ll fly from his home in Lexington to NYC in order to appear on Fox News, but today he’s presiding over the news aggregator’s staff’s annual retreat to a science-fiction convention in the middle of nowhere, where they heckle obese women dressed as vampires and drink a vile mixture of absinthe and diet soda they have dubbed “Tabsinthe.” Overhead, on the TV that dominates Aunt Bee’s country-kitsch dining room, CNN repeats, for what seems the millionth time, a clip of the judge in the Anna Nicole Smith custody case breaking down and crying.

“You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Curtis says, gesticulating with his coffee cup. “Here’s this guy, a judge for crying out loud, and he’s trying to star in his own legal reality show. Media is a tapeworm crawling up its own asshole.”

This is, in a nutshell, the argument behind Curtis’ first book, It’s Not News, It’s Fark. The very fact that Curtis is as far from the East Coast intelligentsia as one can possibly get is why he can criticize it with impunity. The “media mogul” thing happened almost by accident: From its beginnings in 1999 as a way to share funny news stories with friends from the U.K.—where he’d spent his junior year abroad from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa—Fark slowly mutated into a two-million-reader-a-day juggernaut that’s mandatory reading for Clear Channel DJs and “Daily Show” writers.

The site still has nothing resembling an office or a professional staff, and Curtis has vehemently resisted anything remotely resembling “jumping the shark”—including some of the more lucrative forms of advertising. Even the site’s name is a joke, born one night when he tried typing “fuck” while intoxicated.

What all this demonstrates is that you don’t have to have a journalism degree from Columbia to pull aside the curtain and show everyone that there’s no wizard—you just have to be reasonably intelligent guy who lives and breathes news. “I find it hilarious and sadly disturbing that I’ve spent 15 years in a goddamned newsroom, and Drew’s never worked in one; yet he’s learned enough about what we do that he can write a book about media trends and pretty much nail it,” as Curtis’ friend Chez Pazienza, a CNN producer, explained in an email.

“The problem isn’t that we’re getting stupider,” says Curtis. “It’s that media’s getting smarter. Now they can track Web usage to determine how much interest a story is receiving. That’s why there is so much more bullshit in the news these days—it turns out that’s what the mass-media consuming public really wants. If 11 percent of readers keep clicking on Anna Nicole Smith, then they’ll say, ‘Oh, people want Anna Nicole,’ and they’ll keep feeding it to us. Of course, 50 percent of us would like to see hardcore porn, so where does that get you? But if you think about it, the Edward R. Murrow-era was really a historical anomaly. It was yellow journalism in the 1800s, and it’s yellow journalism today.”

Given his lack of a business plan and focus groups, Curtis is still somewhat mystified by his success. However, part of the secret of Fark’s popularity is undoubtedly that, unlike the top-down structure inherent in a newspaper like this one, where pretentious know-it-alls like Yours Truly get paid to infotain you, Fark’s content is entirely submitted by the users.

Unlike Curtis’ Law of Proximity to New York City (“Stories’ importance is inversely proportional to how far they happen from Manhattan”), Fark’s editorial policy is bottom-up—and as a result, hapless criminals in Florida and beer-truck spills in the Midwest get as much space as Britney’s latest fashion mishap. No wonder millions of readers in flyover states feel a sense of ownership—this is the news that interests them, and Fark gives them a forum where they can mercilessly mock the foibles of the powerful and the criminally stupid.

What Curtis has discovered, then, utterly contradicts the conventional media wisdom: If you look at the audience like lab rats and only look at how they respond to a particular stimulus, then people are going to seem pretty dumb.

However, if you actually listen to what the audience has to say, then people start looking pretty clever—and occasionally, New York has to sit up and notice Kentucky, instead of the other way around. 
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