Ryan Holiday is a marketer.

Even his name sounds catchy.

Just like the title of his first book: Trust me I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2012). Being a top marketer – Holiday served as Director of Marketing at American Apparel -, his book is also written in a catchy way – stuffed with punch lines.

That’s not by accident, a short read on Holiday’s blog teaches us. He links to a blog post where he explains how he ‘growth hacked’ his latest book:

“I designed this book to be viral. [..] I tried to keep my sentences short and make my revelations big and exciting. I wanted people to leave with important and actionable sound bites.”

It’s an interesting paradox, since Trust me I’m Lying forms a powerful argument against the clickbait-culture, while at the same time its author uses the exact techniques behind the very same culture to optimize his book. He shows the power in a meta way.

I gained a lot of insights from Holiday’s book. Specifically about how most of online journalism is broken.

The diagnoses goes as follows:

  • Most online media outlets make money by selling ads;
  • In general, the more traffic they have, the more ads they sell;
  • Thus the task of most online journalists is: generate traffic;(Gawker’s famous page views leaderboard in their newsroom comes to mind);
  • In their quest for traffic, journalists are desperately looking for juicy stories;
  • ‘Media manipulators’ like Ryan Holiday supply those journalists with what they need, meanwhile serving their own agendas.

On the opening pages of the book, Holiday explains how he does this:

  • He designs a controversial billboard for one of his clients and makes sure it gets a good spot in LA;
  • Holiday then gets himself a spray can and defaces his own billboard;
  • In act three, Holiday drives by in a car and snaps a photo of the demolished billboards;
  • He then sends it a blogger, who gladly posts it. Uproar follows. Box office soaring.

(Holiday urges media manipulators to ‘trade up the chain’. Send your news to a low-profile blogger with zero to none journalistic standards. He’ll probably post it. You now have a link to your fake controversy. Then it’s just a matter of waiting before a more well-known blogger picks it up).

The billboard example is quite innocent. But what happens when Politico starts following obscure presidential candidates just to get more traffic (and thus sales)? It changes the political arena.

Holiday also hints to a solution: subscription-based publications. Just like The New York Times once created an opportunity to steer away from the sensationalist-sells-good-on-the-streets pulp journalism by introducing subscriptions, web publishers can now escape the ad-drive race to the bottom.

subscriptions versus ads

That’s exactly what we did at our Dutch journalism platform De Correspondent. First we organized a crowdfunding campaign to get started without investor capital (and raised $1.7M), then – as soon as we launched – we introduced a membership. For 60 euros a year, you can access all our articles, podcasts and videos and can contribute to stories. We now have 28,000 subscribers.

I’m not saying we’re immune to media manipulators (they could still mingle in our comments section ), but as I read Trust Me I’m Lying, I took comfort in the fact that our journalists only have to serve one purpose: inform our readers in a thoughtful, trustworthy and careful way.

Ryan Holiday – Trust me I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2012)

Published by Ernst-Jan Pfauth

Ernst Pfauth is co-founder and CEO of The Correspondent, a journalism platform for “unbreaking news” that successfully crowdfunded $2.6 million from 45,888 backers in November 2018 and will launch in mid-2019.

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  1. Vox Media – home to Vox.com, The Verge, Eater and others – has raised a lot of money (again). Just like BuzzFeed and Vice did earlier. On The Awl, they know why:

    These investments are neither mysterious nor confusing. They are bets that companies with advertising revenue will be able to produce more advertising revenue, or that maybe they will be purchased by companies with even more advertising revenue. Their editorial pitches might be different but their investment pitches are the same: They are, effectively, ad agencies for Facebook or or for YouTube or for Twitter or for Pinterest or for whatever new thing comes along.

    I wonder how we should see traditional newspapers if we use the same definition. Ad agencies for kiosks? The main difference of course is that these newspapers used to also rely on subscriptions. And a subscription model leads to more trustworthy journalism.
    An ad-based model on the other hand, only makes you look for more traffic – even when it hurts journalism.
    To be honest, this is the cynical me talking today.
    Because I just as much admire the tech journalism by The Verge, the competing-with-Wikipedia-quest of Ezra Klein and their incredible design skills.
    PS. By the way, by its own definition, The Awl is also an ad agency.


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