"I use the technique of positive visualization. How come I always feel undermined?"
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The most important conversation I ever had in my career—and the best decision I ever made in my career, albeit one I had no idea at the time that I was making any sort of decision about at all—came about 48 hours after Deadspin, the site I founded in September 2005, launched. It was when Lockhart Steele, the managing editor of Gawker Media and the person I’d successfully persuaded to back this strange new venture, introduced me to the world of Sitemeter.
Back in September 2005, Sitemeter was a subscription-based service that simply told you how many people were visiting your website. You put a little Sitemeter button in your site’s HTML, and they would produce hourly reports on unique visitors, pageviews, traffic referrers, geographic metadata, essentially anything you’d want to know. View counts have always been shady metrics that are easily manipulated—a problem, as my NYMag colleague John Herrman pointed out this week, that has only gotten worse—but for a website in 2005, it was close enough for Gawker Media’s purposes. Lockhart sent me the link and said, “this is your new Bible.”
What I found there, when I clicked it, was horrifying. It made me want to smash my computer against the wall.
It wasn’t that Sitemeter did anything wrong, exactly: It simply counted pageviews, after all. It was that I had no idea what I was supposed to do with this information, information I had no context to be able to understand anyway. I was able to see how many people had looked at the site in the last two hours, how that compared to the two hours the day before, and there were detailed reports on which stories they clicked on the most. I noticed immediately that the most popular stories weren’t the most interesting stories, or the ones that I’d worked the hardest on, or the ones that were the most important for the site’s intended audience. They were the ones that had the simplest headlines, or the most puerile subject matter, or merely had the word “nude” in them somewhere. The pieces that mattered the most to me, the ones that best represented the voice I was trying to develop for the site, were among the least popular ones—consistently. And lord, the overall traffic counts were particularly crazy-making. What did these numbers mean? The number of people who visited in the last hour … was that a high number? A low number? Should I be impressed by it? Or should I be frantic that it’s not bigger? Is the goal just to make the numbers go up? If I wanted to do that, I could just slap a “Britney Spears …. Pantsless!” headline in every story. That would make me want to hit myself in the head with a hammer, but hey: The numbers would go up!
The whole thing struck me as insane. How in the world was I supposed to create a site that had a clear, consistent viewpoint, that connected to a (theoretically) intelligent, thoughtful, loyal audience, with these freaking numbers in my face all the time? It was also obvious that no number would ever be big enough; the only number that would ever satisfy anyone, including myself, would be “more.” Looking at those numbers all day would turn me into a hamster on a wheel, running as fast as I can to get a pellet, never going anywhere. And that would be my life.
I wrote Lockhart back.
“Dude, never, ever send me this site again,” I said. “That site should be thrown in the ocean.”
Lockhart was a reasonable person, and we came up with a compromise. He would look at the numbers every day but not tell me how the site was doing. After a month, if the site was not growing in the way he thought it should, he could let me know. And if a month after that it still wasn’t growing, we could go ahead and just shut the whole thing down. That would be fine with me: I would have done the site I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it, and if it didn’t work, hey, I work in media—things fail all the time. The one thing I wasn’t going to do was stare at some scoreboard and punch myself in the face until I had enough points—and I knew I’d never have enough points.
Lockhart begrudgingly agreed, and, for maybe the last time, I turned out to be right: There was an audience for what I was doing, and the site caught on … and then got big, very big, ultimately, maybe, too big for my tastes. Two-and-a-half years later, after making that site the center of just about every aspect of my life, I left, having never once looked at a pageview count or traffic number. I haven’t looked at once since either. It has become a bit of joke with every editor I’ve worked with since, the first thing I tell them when I start working with them: Do not tell me how well my stories are doing, I do not want to know. If they let me keep writing for them, I assume they’re doing fine. That’s enough information for me.
I do not know if this has helped my career, or hurt it. But it has kept me sane. And it has kept me writing. I didn’t realize not looking at traffic numbers would save my career, and really my life. But I didn’t realize what looking at them was going to do to everybody else either.
This week, I wrote about Deion Sanders for New York magazine. The point of my piece was not that Deion Sanders was good, or bad. (I like him, all told.) The point was that Deion Sanders is the story of college football this year not because his team is good (it is, kinda, not really) and not because he’s somehow revolutionized the sport (he hasn’t); the reason he’s the story of college football is because he drives television ratings, which is the only thing anyone involved in college football cares about anymore. I believe that college football is heading down a road to ruin precisely because it only cares about television ratings, which are fungible and inconsistent and don’t actually have anything to do with what people like about college football and are based on metrics that are going to be outdated in half a decade anyway, at which time we’ll have ripped apart all the things that made us like college football in the first place and won’t be able to put them back together. (You can get a longer version of this argument right here.)
But what I found most remarkable was the number of people who work in college football, who write about college football, who deeply love college football, all collectively deciding that, well, if Deion makes the numbers go up, then that should be the only thing we all talk and write about—that should be the only thing that matters. This is a corollary of The Athletic college football writer Stewart Mandel’s argument that the ideal college football fan right now, because television executives run the sport now, is not someone who obsesses over the sport or has passed it down through their family for generations: It’s a random dude from New Jersey who doesn’t care about college football at all but might happen to stumble across a game on a Saturday afternoon because he recognizes the names of the two teams playing. It’s the Britney Goes Pantless theory: Your target audience becomes people who have no idea or interest in what you’re doing at all. The people who care most about your product or your work, the ones who are most actively engaged, the ones you’re trying the most to connect with, get shuffled aside for the people who care nothing about it and have no desire to. It’s insulting your most loyal customers by focusing on, frankly, trying to reach the stupid and uninvolved. And next thing you know, there’s a sleeveless idiot on my pregame show whose interest in the history and tradition of college sports begins and ends with his most recent two-team parlay.
I understand why a soulless television or tech executive would act this way. I have met many, many of these people, and the one thing they have in common is that they really don’t care one way or the other about much of anything but themselves: They will come in to a media organization, make a bunch of noise, smash and grab whatever they can and bolt to start a new hustle somewhere else. (See: Deadspin today, Maven, David Zaslav, Newsweek, and, until very recently, Yahoo.) What I don’t understand is why someone involved in a creative field—whether it be writing, or television, or journalism, or art, or really anything that you believe in as a passion and a calling—would want to have anything to do with any of this. At one point, early on in their lives, every one of these people said, “I really love writing/college football/design/movies/television/criticism/whatever, and I’m going to dedicate myself to making that my career.” Many of these people were smart enough, had they decided to, to go make a bunch of money as hedge funders or stock traders or bankers or real estate salespeople, or whatever, jobs that require hard work and expertise but are far more nuts-and-bolts and by definition less esoteric: You go into those jobs to make money, not to make any sort of artistic or ephemeral mark on the world. These people did not do that. They chose to make something.
And then … they started looking at the numbers. Suddenly, the numbers became their sole focus. Maybe they thought the numbers would give them power, or stability, or relevance. Maybe they justified it to themselves that this was how they would stay afloat. Or maybe they just loved the endorphin rush, that sense of excitement you can get from simply watching one number be bigger than another number—to feel as if you are growing in stature and power. So they gave in. And next thing you know, the people who are supposed to be protecting us from the soulless executives who don’t really care about these things but just want to make a quick buck, they started focusing not on what was important, what the truly invested wanted to read about and consume, but instead what would make those numbers go up even more. And the cycle continues and continues and continues, until your favorite writer is suddenly screaming hot takes about into their phone about Dak Prescott and woke mascots and hasn’t written a word that didn’t explicitly promote their podcast in months.
I understand that everyone wants to keep their jobs. It’s a tough industry. But I have bad news: The numbers won’t save you. You can run and run on that hamster wheel all you want, and eventually they’ll stop handing out pellets to you, and they’ll give that wheel to a hamster who’s younger and cheaper than you and also maybe a robot. The media industry, every industry, is full of people who did everything they thought they were supposed to do, everything they were told to do, and still got their ass shit-canned anyway. There’s nothing you can do. There’s no number big enough. They don’t care. They will fire you, move on to something else and never think about you again.
So, I implore one more time, tilting at this windmill for the 19th consecutive year: Stop looking at the numbers. They won’t make you happy. They won’t satisfy you. They won’t save you. They won’t do anything but make you jittery and antsy and always feeling like you should be doing more more more. And they will make everything worse for the people who aren’t just passing by, the Jersey guy who only notices brands he already recognizes. To care about something—whether it’s writing, or television, or sports, or movies, or art, or basket weaving—is to invest your soul in it whether you have a million people looking at what you are doing, or just 20. Do what you believe in. Focus on what you have to contribute. Get better at saying what you want to say. Numbers don’t help you, and they don’t mean anything anyway. They’ll just make you forget why you ever cared so much in the first place.
Roger Ebert, decades ago now, told me, “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control.” Just make things, and make them the way you want to make them. Life is too short, and too important, to waste your time doing anything else.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
The Difficulty of Winning 200 Games, From Now On, MLB.com. Let’s go, Waino! (Let us talk no further about the Cardinals.)
Deion Sanders Is the Symptom of College Football’s Problem, New York. I like Deion! But this probably isn’t healthy.
There Are Some Non-World Series Winners Who Have a Real Chance This Year, MLB.com. Maybe this is the year one of these teams break through.
Grierson & Leitch, we discussed “A Haunting in Venice,” “El Conde” and “Cassandro.”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we recapped South Carolina and previewed UAB.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Hasan Minhaj’s ‘Emotional Truths,’” Clare Malone, New Yorker. There has been a lot of debate about this story, about what it means to be truthful in entertainment in comedy, about Minhaj himself. But Malone’s piece is fair, straightforward, entertaining and dogged: This is how all entertainment reporting should be.
Also, I’m pretty obsessed with this dude who believes he won’t die. Lemme know how all this works out for you, buddy.
Oh, and this piece about the history and brilliance of “Spy vs. Spy” was a delight.
And I implore everyone—and every member of everyone’s extended family—read this truly terrifying profile of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, a man who may have saved us from so, so much. For now. My God.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
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CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Weapon of Choice,” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I’ve discovered this old aughts staple is excellent background writing music, it has the forward momentum I’m looking for. Not sure about the video, though.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Bought this custom-made jersey for my Bucks-fan son this week. I might be ready for basketball to come back.
Have a great weekend, all.