You see in the run-up to writing that article I had gone from working for the site completely for free - as many young writers, hungry for opportunity are happy/compelled by a penny-pinching industry to do - to being made a sort of sub-editor told that I stood to make X-hundred numbers of pounds per week depending on the number of hits I attracted to the site. At first I attempted to meet this responsibility as I'd always naively imagined it: idealistically commissioning what (I thought) were "worthy" articles about film-making and wider pop-culture (as per the remit of the site). Mostly celebratory, labour-of-love stuff about the wide array of things the site's huge pool of (volunteer) writers were passionate about, from comic books to arthouse movies to sport.
Alas, these things weren't at all compatible with an economic model based around attracting hits via search engines and, for one miserable week, I was spending from 8am to 10pm hunched over the computer with little to show for it - creatively or fiscally. It was an uphill struggle to get good quality work on that site (from people working for free), not made any easier by the fact that new content arrived so fast it tended to push less popular items off the front page within an hour or so of publication - quickly dooming less bombastic pieces to the archive.
In short: "10 Reasons Why [X] Will Suck" is worth more to such a site than something more nuanced and reasonable. If you wonder why online discourse is frequently so antagonistic and perpetually ALL-CAPS shouty, the blame doesn't lie solely with angry readers, hatefully abusing their anonymity: editors encourage articles that solicit this response because they get people talking. Because people share them on Facebook and Tweet about them and thus attract more hits, bringing in more revenue. Navin R. Johnson came to a similar realisation in 'The Jerk'.
Hence the reasonable article I originally planned on never appeared. It didn't have a title that would work with Google or anything like enough punchy bullet-points to sustain the casual engagement of the imagined skim-reading public. To be clear: I'm not blaming this on the editor/site owner at all. The article was my idea. I pitched it and I ultimately made it sensationalist crap. But I did so because I was worried about getting enough hits to get paid. Volume of traffic is what counts and not the quality of it. To put it into context, so you don't assume I'm a money-grabbing-shyster who'd do anything for a quick buck, the sort of articles I like to write frequently attracted only a couple of hundred hits each.
These were, quite often, interviews with directors and actors which required hours of preparation, travel up to London, then several more hours transcribing words from a scratchy dictaphone (not fun at all), before then writing and formatting a finished article. And then you get a few hundred hits if you're lucky - at least on the site I wrote for (we're not talking The Guardian here), which was at that time dominated by share-friendly list articles proclaiming the "10 best this" and "100 worst that". In contrast my terrible article on GTA V currently has several hundred thousand views, over a hundred comments and lots of all-important "re-Tweets" and "shares". These are stats which make me sad about the state of online journalism and made me increasingly reluctant to want to devote much more of my life to it, because they actually highlight an existing disincentive to spending the time it takes producing work of quality.
Be honest: if your income was directly linked to how many hits you attracted, would you spend a considerable part of your working week posting an interview with Werner Herzog or Noah Baumbach that ten people care about, or would you spend the equivalent time bashing out a dozen terrible list articles that will each attract several hundred times that of an interview and take minimal time/brain power to write (at least when done badly by me)? It's that question I didn't want to have to answer any more, basically.
Now the circumstances leading up to the creation of my article, which was merely lazy and cynical rather than outright offensive, weren't the only reason I stopped wanting to write in this field on anything like a professional day-to-day basis. I also didn't appreciate being asked to effectively re-type other site's news stories, which - alongside lists - was part of that site's bread and butter in the absence of any actual investigative journalists. The embarrassing and ethically questionable practice I've seen described as "churnalism". Then there was the day, shortly before I left, that I received a mass e-mail asking for submissions from the writing pool for an article about the "top 100 babes" or something similar. Which is gross.
But probably the worst thing I came across was during the London riots. As they unfolded live on TV - as several decades of disenfranchisement of the inner-city poor and ethnic minorities created a sorry, pointlessly destructive spectacle of raw human ugliness - I was horrified (not a word I use here lightly) when one of the site's owners excitedly sent round an e-mail soliciting articles about the best weapons to use on rioters (I seem to remember tear gas was a suggestion), hoping to cash-in quickly on the turmoil. I can imagine the same guy suggesting an article with the title "10 Weapons We're Excited To See Dropped On Damascus!" That I didn't quit writing for them that instant remains a source of shame, but you're always reluctant to burn professional bridges when you're just starting out and I was grateful for many of the opportunities the site had given me in the past. I suppose I'm bridge-burning right now, though I've tried to do so without causing undue embarrassment or offence to anybody involved.
So yeah, I wrote a stupid article about something I didn't care that strongly about in an attempt to impress my boss, earn some money and subsidise dead-end articles about things I actually do care about. It's not something I'm proud of, but at least I stopped doing it very quickly and I haven't done it again since. Now you know why I fell out of love with doing this stuff. I hope it was worth your time! Thanks for reading.