On the about page for The Rival, beneath a quick history of the company and some tongue-in-cheek quotes attributed to “moms” and “corporations,” there’s a solicitation. “ATTENTION ADVERTISERS: Geo-target one campus or reach hundreds of thousands of the prized 18-24 demographic. And do it affordably.”
The Rival is one of a few online publications that use similar models. Like The Odyssey and Elite Daily, The Rival is concerned with what they call “content creation,” a term used pretty consistently across all three websites. Utilizing unpaid student writers from across the country, these sites set up de facto franchises on different campuses. The type of writing found there is a little different than what you might find at, say, the Campus Times. Rather than act as news sites, they’re more like campus culture blogs, emphasizing quick, easily-digestible opinion pieces, or listicles that concern everything from “11 Reasons To Love Prince George” to “Our Skewed Perception of Happiness” (from Rochester’s Odyssey page). The mission statements all emphasize the outsider nature of their respective voices; like a certain Republican presidential candidate, they seem to couch much of their appeal in their anti-establishment tone and status.
Giving students the chance for exposure without being beholden to the more stringent journalistic standards of a campus newspaper provides a space where students can write pieces like the widely-circulated article on the recent queer space debate mentioned by the Editorial Board this week. That’s not to say that such an article couldn’t find a home at the Campus Times, but there is a certain value to having more than one forum for students to voice their opinions.
That being said, the vitality of the forum doesn’t really excuse the reality of how it operates. Writing purely for exposure is a good exercise, but the lack of a true editorial process ends up allowing bad habits to persist. Students writing for these publications are largely left out to dry, editorially speaking, so these websites, rather than functioning as quasi-incubators for young writers looking to gain a modicum of exposure, instead become content factories where the few actual employees of these sites only need to concern themselves with page views, rather than quality.
It’s similar to the Herbalife or Veema pyramid schemes that so many of my high school friends fell for, wherein they were told that if they sold enough cases of some dubiously healthy energy drinks, they’d be able to make serious money. Rather than get a start in sales, they found themselves selling memberships in the company more than they sold the actual energy drinks, and today, both of those companies are under investigation for operating what were essentially pyramid schemes. While The Rival or The Odyssey doesn’t require a financial investment, it does ask for an investment of time and talent that they have little interest in repaying.
There’s also the tag of “journalism” that many of these sites attach to themselves. Claiming to be journalistic without reporting any actual news is an issue, and it’s compounded by the fact that, again, with no significant editorial process, there’s not really a stringent fact-checking process, either. Because of this, news and opinion get melded in such a way that articles like the now-famous (at least on campus) “Three Fifths of a Student” come to be perceived by the community as journalism. The article is interesting and well-thought out, but journalism is necessarily fact-checked and objective; with The Rival, The Odyssey, and so many of these sites, the onus of fact-checking, fairly or not, is put on the writer, which throws the objectivity into question.
As for that advertisement solicitation, it’s important to remember that with these sites, like Facebook, the site remains free precisely because the users are what’s being sold. Eighteen to 24-year-olds are a prime demographic because of their buying power, but also because of their willingness to share information about themselves online. The content is ostensibly what the sites are about, but they’re not making money from good writing—they’re making money on advertising dollars. This isn’t exactly news—the newspaper industry has relied on advertising since the middle of the nineteenth century—but these sites market themselves as platforms for young writers to practice and gain exposure. Where is the investment in the writers?
As I mentioned before, it’s important for students to have multiple outlets to express their feelings on events on campus and beyond. I think the campus community would be better served by an alternative news site that was run independently of any outside influence. WordPress, Tumblr, and a slew of other websites offer platforms where writers, editors, and artists can remain autonomous and not have to worry about page views. Several UR students have started a sports, politics, and culture blog called Full Court Trap that produces well-written, thoughtful articles without having to be beholden to anyone but themselves. That’s the way to do alternative news.