I remember reading Ben Brooks’s takedown of The Verge1 in December and thinking he was on to something, but that I wasn’t quite ready to call bullshit on the site and its writers. Now I am.
It’s been a bad week for The Verge, the tech news clearinghouse started by former-Engadget staffers last year and part of the growing Vox Media empire. With a slick “magazine-like” layout and loads of ways to interact with the site, the team there has undoubtedly built an incredible online presence. Their video content is second-to-none, their forums are full of informed nerdy-types and their long-form feature pieces look amazing in a Web browser. The trouble is the content itself, which this week proved to be weak, shameful, unconscionable or all of the above. So I’m done with them.
Let’s start with the pieces leading up to Amazon’s Kindle announcement this week. The first red flag for me was this August 30th piece by Chris Ziegler with the headline “Exclusive: meet the Amazon Kindle with ‘Paperwhite’ backlit display.” I was excited to see this headline because, well The Verge is a big-time outlet and Chris, who I’ve been reading for years, is a real-deal tech journalist. So I was confused when I got to the page and saw 200 words with an image gallery containing seven images, each with “The Verge” burned into the corner.
My first problem was the use of the word exclusive. I’m used to film outlets abusing the term, but I wasn’t prepared for The Verge to play fast and loose with it. To me, and really to english-speaking readers the world over, exclusive in a headline means more than just images, but analysis and original writing you won’t find anywhere else. And the rest of the headline? When I “meet” a new device I usually get more than some pics and a glorified caption.
Worst of all was Ziegler’s content, which said nothing. Where did the images come from? How did The Verge obtain them? Why aren’t they in English? Nothing. Not even a passing reference. Which is everything. When I didn’t see any form of sourcing in the short piece, my first thought was that Amazon “leaked” the images to The Verge, and if that’s the case, then, as journalists, they failed me as a reader. If they have a source and a scoop they have an obligation to share as much information as they can get their hands on.
Let me be clear: I am not accusing Ziegler or The Verge of regurgitating a fake leak from Amazon. However, without their own explanation of the images’ provenance, as a reader I am left to my own devices to assume where they came from. Without anything of value in Chris’s copy, what am I to think?
Then came Nilay Patel’s head-scratcher this past Wednesday: “Exclusive: Amazon phone confirmed, could be announced tomorrow.” This heavy-handed (and impossible) headline was followed by a mere 182 words.
Multiple sources have confirmed to The Verge that Amazon is working on a smartphone that runs a variant of the Kindle Fire’s Android-based operating system, and we’re now hearing that the device will be shown to the press tomorrow.
That headline is shameful. It treats us, as readers, like complete idiots whose clicks need to be bilked out of us at all costs. The “Exclusive” at the front is annoying even if warranted (though of course I would like to read a more in depth-piece). The trouble is that the headline indicates two different pieces of information that aren’t exactly backed up in Patel’s copy, and one of which isn’t confirmed at all.
Let’s talk about that confirmation for a moment. The headline says, “Amazon phone confirmed,” but the piece says “Multiple sources have confirmed to The Verge that Amazon is working on a smartphone.” Working. Nilay is, ostensibly, confirming nothing. Companies work on all kinds of devices that never see the light of day. Patel squandered a more interesting angle (what are they working on?) to get a flashy headline out there.
And that whole “could be” thing? I don’t think I need to explain why saying, consecutively, “confirmed, could be” needs to be explained away. And the copy says “we’re now hearing that the device will be shown to the press tomorrow,” which sounds like as much of a confirmation as the angle on the phone’s existence. So the piece doesn’t even back up the headline.
Why does this bother me? Alone, it’s a sad case of link-bait, but combine it with Ziegler’s previous “exclusive” and the hamster in my head gets back on his wheel. How does one outlet get two non-starter exclusives from the same company in one week? The only conclusion I can think of is that Amazon is leaking them stories they want out there. Again, I have no proof of this and this is not an accusation. But The Verge isn’t giving me a better narrative.
Finally, yesterday afternoon Bryan Bishop published the most hyperbolic headline yet: “Film review: ‘Looper’ reinvents the sci-fi film with a mix of humanity and adventure.” It’s all fun and games when The Verge disappoints me while covering the tech space, but now they’re covering movies too?
I’ll be seeing the film soon at Fantastic Fest and I’m avoiding reviews, so I haven’t read Bishop’s take, but the headline is preposterous on its face because he isn’t a film critic and he’s not writing for a film outlet. As such, it’s impossible to trust his word that a film could reinvent any genre.
Annoying. But it gets worse.
About an hour and a half after publication, Verge reader “slipslip” posted this comment:
Since it is somewhat unusual for The Verge to review and cover movies (even sci-fi ones), it seems like it might be appropriate for Bryan to add a “full disclosure” addendum to the article about his personal friendship with the director, which I believe was mentioned in The Verge’s post featuring the interview with him.
I agree, slipslip, I’ve just added one. Thanks for the suggestion!
And added this:
[Full disclosure: Bryan Bishop and Mr. Johnson attended college together, a topic we discuss in our interview with the director.]2
First off, it’s discouraged for film critics to do interview pieces for films they plan to review, even when they didn’t go to college with the filmmaker. Secondly, “thanks for the suggestion”? On what planet is disclosure a suggestion? Bishop had an obligation to tell the readers his relationship to the filmmaker from the get-go, and no, linking to another piece where he drops that bit of info (and not in a disclosure, mind you) doesn’t count.
Do I need to do the math on this? The Verge doesn’t regularly do movie reviews. When they do it’s a glowing review of one their News Manager’s college pals. This is more than dubious, it’s downright scandalous. Shame on the site’s entire staff for allowing this to be published under their logo without disclosure.
The journalistic standards The Verge’s staff have displayed in the past week have been, collectively, the last straw. I don’t need the site in my life to begin with, but they have now broken the one thing a news outlet must preserve in order to keep a reader: trust. I have lost faith in the endeavor completely; I can’t trust anything I read on the site anymore.
So I’m done with The Verge. They may not miss one reader. That’s fine. I won’t miss them either.