What Happens to Journalism ...


A “turn-the-crank” mentality to generate a relentless stream of articles shapes journalism at many media properties.

Of course quality suffers.

While you can find a slew of articles in which journalists lament the issue in theoretical terms, here’s an example from a major publication that makes it all too real.

Check out “How Chick-fil-A’s Restaurants Sell Three Times As Much as KFC’ that appeared in Business Insider last week.

Before going further, I’m not picking on Hayley Peterson, the journalist who wrote the piece. Her pedigree includes several years covering the White House for the Washington Examiner and the Daily Mail. The issue isn’t expertise.

The issue is time.

The economics that support Business Insider partly depend on finding topics that will trigger an avalanche of social shares as well as paying homage to that great search engine in the sky — ideally with a topic that’s trending. As a result, many of the BI articles share more in common with a content farm than the journalism that Ms. Peterson studied at the University of Georgia.

Going back to the Chick-fil-A article, the headline tells the reader that the article will deliver a mini lesson in how Chick-fil-A dominates KFC. That sounds useful even if your job doesn’t touch the fast food wars.

In what is already a thin article of just over 300 words, the first 192 words of real estate are devoted to Chick-fil-A’s numbers already in the public domain. So much for dot-connecting journalism.

Next comes the segue into the supposed big lesson:

  • So what are Chick-fil-A’s secrets for success?

It turns out that “Chick-fil-A has a menu that is different enough to set it apart from fast food competitors.”

That’s a secret?

Then the article “reveals” that the brand sells a chicken sandwich using the description from the website, “a boneless breast of chicken seasoned to perfection, hand-breaded, pressure cooked in 100% refined peanut oil and served on a toasted, buttered bun with dill pickle chips.”

Our crack research team discovered that KFC also offers a chicken sandwich.KFC 08-15The article goes on to say that no one knows the secret sauce for the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, though there’s conjecture that the “chicken breast is brined in pickle juice.”

Again, not exactly fodder for a Harvard Business School case study.

And the last line makes zero sense:

  • “Long known as a carry-out dinner option, KFC has struggled to find its footing in the fast food space.” 

Yet, the BI article includes a chart that shows KFC ranks No. 11 in the fast food market with $4.2B in revenue. Say what you will about KFC — chicken as a pizza crust is downright weird — but it seems to me that selling over $4 billion’s worth of drumsticks and mashed potatoes in a year does constitute “footing” in the market.

If you reverse engineer a cross section of BI articles you find a certain formula that goes something like this. Flag a news item. Write a version of the same story using quotes that appear in other source material — pulling a quote from a corporate video is an ideal technique since Google interprets the content as “original” — which gives the illusion of reporting. Hit publish. By sourcing all material from third parties, BI can construct these stories with assembly-line efficiency.

Returning to the question at hand, how does the smaller Chick-fil-A dominate KFC? We never find out.

The article is nothing more than click bait, which suits Business Insider just fine. With over 10,000 social shares, the article did its job.

Whether this suits Hayley Peterson is a question for another day.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “What the Hell Does the PR Guy Know About Journalism?

Leave a Reply