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When does giving the reader what they want turn into clickbait?

31 August 2014

From GigaOm:

The conventional wisdom is that clickbait is the bane of internet journalism, a kind of desperate pandering by revenue-challenged media companies aimed at racking up eyeballs — driven by the relentless economics of pageview-driven advertising. But what is it really? Everyone thinks they know it when they see it, and Facebook is even trying to ban it from the network, but defining it is harder than it seems. In fact, the dividing line between clickbait and serving the interests of the reader is a lot more blurry than the conventional wisdom suggests.

. . . .

Many argue that an obsession with metrics has put journalists on a “hamster wheel” and driven the quality of online journalism to new depths (an argument I’ve tried to refute a number of times), to the point where some media outlets don’t even allow their writers to see the metrics related to their work, for fear of distorting their motives. But in many ways, “clickbait” is just a natural outgrowth of the evolution in journalism from a one-way broadcast approach to a two-way model — in other words, from push to pull, or from supply-driven to demand-driven.

. . . .

In her piece, Christin quotes Richard Darnton, who was a reporter for the New York Times in the 1960s, and wrote about what the news business was like before the internet: in those days, he says, “We really wrote for one another.” As Christin puts it:

Darnton reminds us that, in the printed world, the quality of one’s articles was mostly assessed by one’s peers and superiors. Journalists had somewhat abstract representations of their reading public. The letters to the editor were often left unread. Then came the Internet.

What Darnton describes is an almost completely one-way approach to media — in the old days, news stories and other content were produced because an editor or editors decided they should be, either because they were trying to appeal to certain readers, or because they believed an issue was important and their audience should know about it, or some combination of those two factors. For the most part, what readers were actually interested in, or what they were actually reading (as opposed to what they said they were reading in focus-group surveys) had little or nothing to do with what appeared in a newspaper or magazine.

The ability to see every click, every page load — even the “scroll depth,” or how far down a reader has made it in every story — has completely up-ended that traditional model, not to mention data on where readers come from (increasingly social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook rather than search) and what they choose to share. And that in turn has completely changed how media outlets produce content.

Link to the rest at GigaOm

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15 Comments to “When does giving the reader what they want turn into clickbait?”

  1. When you’re blatantly lying to your readers because you think that’s what they want.

  2. If this article is true why didn’t newspapers die off long ago?


    • The same reason the Big 5 and their predecessors dominated book publishing for so long. No realistic alternatives.

      If there’s no good food around, people will eat gruel and like it.

      • LOL. We don’t want no stinkin’ filet mignon. Just give us some stale rice cakes soaked in warm water til they’re nice and soggy… 🙁

    • Darnton is describing the virtually unique environment at the NY Times, where my Dad was a reporter for almost forty years. Then as now, the Times was/is a bubble. Like all bubble dwellers, Darnton thinks it was the world.

      Before the devastating strike of 1962-63, NYC was home to many more newspapers, all staffed with reporters who got out, pounded the pavement, talked to ordinary people, and to a large degree gave them what they wanted to read. Unfortunately, most of those papers went out of business when evolving technology and financial realities clashed with entrenched interests that blocked changes necessary for survival. Sound familiar?

      • Former newspaperman here. Newspaper reporting ossified down the path of least resistance. Relying on faxed press releases instead of interviews. Running up against “spokesmen” instead of talking to employees. Less of a desire to interview people on the street when you can stay in your comfortable office and work the phones (and when you leave messages, you have to stay by the phone in case they call back).

        You also lost a lot of the newspaper culture when they went from news carriers to older people with cars. Afternoon newspapers died out, which mean kids couldn’t deliver papers after school. Minimum-wage laws made it unprofitable to deal with kids, so adult drivers were used.

        Also, newspaper execs were no longer interested in promoting their product. You didn’t have the Pulitzers, Hearsts and John Foster Kanes interested in stirring up trouble and boosting their circulation. They were managers, not promoters.

        In the US, 70 percent of newspaper income came from the advertisers, 30 percent from subscribers, so execs pandered to the advertisers, making sure the stories did not challenge the images they were fostering.

        Finally, starting around the ’70s, family-owned chains were being bought up by corporations. A three percent profit margin that satisfied the families were not acceptable. They wanted 10 percent, even more. That led to cutbacks in paying reporters what they were worth, buying features that would draw subscribers, investing in reporting projects that would heighten their profile but not earn back the cost.

        After all, they had a monopoly. What were readers going to do?

        Then television news got going, then the internet, and now they’re swirling the drain, cutting, cutting, cutting and not thinking “how can I make this newspaper valuable to readers?”

        Newspapers can’t compete because they’re not staffed with owners and managers who want to compete.

        • Even when I was growing up in the early 1980’s, in a midsized city, there were two city newspapers (more or less Republican and Democrat), a town newspaper at the county seat, and a small town newspaper for the town where we lived.

          The city newspapers competed. The town newspapers competed. There were always plenty of interesting things to read that were exclusive to each paper.

          Then the Democrat paper bought the Republican paper and gradually disappeared it, and the small town newspaper (and all the other ones around us) got bought out and turned into some eight-page shopping news thing with a few odd pictures and sports scores while all the columnists and news and cartoons went away.

          The newspaper at the county seat is still hanging on pretty well, mostly by refusing to be the same as everybody else and having their own columns, news reporting, political cartoons and comics/puzzles choices.

          • I live in a two-paper town. I work for the Democrat paper, and I love the competition the Republican paper gives us. We partner with them on certain things, which is a moderating influence. A reporter at one paper might quit and go to the other paper. It’s not unusual for someone at one paper to be married to someone else at the other paper.

            However, I think the reason one never bought out the other is the knowledge that an important percentage of the Democrat readers will never buy the Republican paper, and vice versa. I’m surprised the papers in your town were willing to risk it.

            Now we’re both owned by two different conglomerates. Interestingly, our partnernship/competition with the Republican paper seems to keep certain wolves at bay on the corporate side. They can’t make the reader-hostile changes they’ve implemented in the one-paper cities because they’d have to find a way to knee-cap the Republican paper at the same time. I find myself hoping that the Republican paper resists those same changes on their side so that we can keep resisting, too.

      • ” Like all bubble dwellers, Darnton thinks it was the world.”

        Yeah, this. +1

  3. Not so different from self-pubbed books.

  4. Current journo here. Saw it coming. But the newspapers print on ink didnt. When moguls buy up newspapers they try to make the eagle on the dollar bill scream. Lost: investigative reporting… the one true thing that makes for a free press. Lost: man on the street interviews that spoke to the people that actually read the paper. Lost: the sharp editorial cartoon section throwing syndicated cartoonists overboard. Lost, actual food pages daily that one could make tasty and quickly at home, written by a person who made quick and tasty dishes at home. Lost: the farm report. Where the h did they think people who are growers can get that kind of info daily before the internet?. Lost: the ‘we love your dog too’ pages of meeting the everyman/everydog/everywoman/everychild/everycat where they live. Lost: actual critical editorials. Lost; thoughtful thinkers on the op ed page instead of ranters. Lost: Obituaries free. Pay only, literally $500-$1000 dollars [ a per word price] for a two para obit, thereby truncating the community [before legacy .com etc] who no longer knew who had passed so as to pay respects. Lost: all photos of brides and engagement pix and couples married pix except for high society couples who no one knew and had no reason to want to know. Lost: book review sections and sunday magazines.

    Gained: tons of snark, bad dog, bad person, bad blah blah, while ignoring the stories of dead men who are brought back in pieces from Afghan and Iraq, ignoring the people in Congo who literally are crying out for US and Uk to please come help, battering about various politicians for the same f-ink boring reasons til one cant read that dreck anymore… and more ignoring of real news that affects heart, mind, finances, current day and future…

    That the old trope was that journos wrote for other journos, is provincial and narrower than a bobby pin, leaving the needs/preferences of the readership out [where have we heard this–ah, in ‘higher’ education–never ever consult the students and follow their gifted insights for curriculum]. And yet in book reviewing re the old, now lost book magazine of WaPo, the lost section at LAT, the loss of book sec at ChiTrib… loss and loss including Deseret… too often there the ‘inner goo’ of the small cell was writing for each other too. I witnessed it firsthand and it was disgusting paybacks deadly or deifying– with no ombudsman oversight. And there, an author only had one chance for review with one whomever. AMZ gives every author chance at many reviews, both hi star and low star, by many many different minds… It’s a far better system–

    even though Bezos bought WaPo and immediately has tried to put it behind a pay wall. Interestingly, WaPo sent out a ‘special onetime offer’ to buy their doorway into WaPo, but for only x many days. Didnt work apparently, that was months ago. I still get offers to buy past the pay wall at same price. I see that Bezos is trying to emulate WSJ and NYT models of paywall. It barely works for NYT after the first ten ‘free’ articles a month. Why? Without the investigative reporting and far more than just the latest ‘blood in the reporter’s eyes’ reporting that amounts to snark-rants, many of us just bypass and go elsewhere to get news, like to Al Jezeera, India, and other papers in English that tell more and better.

    Yet, local news that is actual news other than ‘if it bleeds it leads,’ is kaput except for the small newspapers in some communities, including the so called alternative newspapers, who often still do massive investigative reporting… and have their back pages filled with jillions of ads for the latest snake oils, outcall girls/guys or dope/smoke shops. For those apparently target the readers the alt press targets… and those ads dont go to craig’s list. Interesting.

  5. “some media outlets don’t even allow their writers to see the metrics related to their work” –

    Scribd has the only metrics I’ve been “allowed” to see so far. Would definitely like to see even that basic info expand to the other outlets.

    And apparently Scribd has “lots” more info, but something in the back & forth with Smashwords isn’t letting that get to us (writers).

    So really, much still needs to change.

  6. When the article has only the most tangental, if any, connection to the “bait” in the headline.

    See: every post ever at the Huffington Post.

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