Clickbait is not journalism but Buzzfeed might have some solutions.
Print journalism is dying. It hurts me to see but it’s becoming more and more clear. This year saw The Independent, a well known and fairly well liked newspaper announce it was going online only. There have been attempts to innovate however.
‘i’ was an attempt by Johnston Press to condense quality journalism in a tabloid format with brief articles and a 56 page length. This saw relative success, its circulation eclipsed that of it’s longer, sister paper The Independent. Unfortunately it became clear when Trinity Mirror launched ‘The New Day’, a similarly short newspaper, that simply cutting length wasn’t enough to have success. The paper ceased publication within 10 weeks of launching.
Online journalism creates its own problems. In the case of online journalism, specifically online journalism that gets most of it’s revenue from advertisements, the incentive is to write the articles that get you the most clicks. This can have a negative effect on the quality of reporting, with sites being incentivised to write ‘clickbait’ titles. A prime example of this is a news article The Independent ran this week that they advertised as “Woman ‘hugely proud’ to be having her brother’s child”, the title of this article suggested something very different to the fact that her brother was gay and the baby was being conceived by IVF. Similarly they ran an article titled ‘Someone found love after texting a number in the toilet offering a ‘good sh*g’’, one again this article suggested something very different to the fact that the man in question texted the number just to see if it was a real number. Neither of these title are factually wrong, but by presenting the facts in a specific way they get people to click on their article and see their ads. Most people when they actually read the first few lines of the article simply close it, disappointed that they were miss-sold but so far as the website is concerned, that’s a view in their ads and money in the bank.
This low quality, click focused journalism has started to enter our political reporting too take this article from the US ‘Both George W. Bush And George H.W. Bush Have Announced Their Endorsement’ , this sounds like big news right? Two former Republican Presidents announcing their endorsement, especially when there have been rumours of the Bush family talking to Garry Johnson, the Libertarian Candidate. No actually, they’ve announced they’re not endorsing anyone. Not only does that article have a terrible headline but it requires you to click ‘next’ and see a whole other page of advertisements in order to actually see this fact. If journalism is supposed to be about taking the truth to the people this isn’t it.
Inflammatory headlines to draw in the clicks tacked onto articles with fairly uninteresting substance is a great way of making people lose interest when the stories that matter come along. There is another way though, and surprisingly the answer comes from Buzzfeed.
When people think of Buzzfeed the first thing people think of is clickbait. It might be surprising, from an article that has up to this point railed against clickbait journalists to suggest that the future of online journalism might come from the actions of Buzzfeed. For context I think it’s important that you look at the Buzzfeed UK Politics Facebook page, what do you notice? The titles and text is informative before you click on it. Gone are the clickbait headlines and the articles are well written but understandable. During the election last year you would not believe the number of young people I knew who were able to make informed decisions about their vote thanks to the Buzzfeed UK Politics page.
Buzzfeed not only achieves high quality news reporting, but have actually had some really substantive investigative journalism. For example, among the political far left the website ‘The Canary’ has grown from nowhere to become a hugely popular website. Buzzfeed produced a fantastic bit of investigative journalism that deconstructed how the website came to be and how it operates based on interviews with former Canary writers. So what are Buzzfeed doing? How are they striking the write balance? The answer is fairly simple. They use their clickbait lists and quizzes to fund quality journalism, then they offer separate feeds for their journalism so people who just want their formative writing can have it filtered out. Buzzfeed managed to rake in $167 million in revenue last year and be in the top 150 websites globally, while producing quality journalism that doesn’t compromise to get clicks.
Like anything this isn’t going to be a silver bullet for all journalism going forward, maybe the only real solution is a universal basic income, locking some content behind a paywall or something else that hasn’t been tried yet. As with any market it’s important we have a plurality of models and let people decide what they want. But I think it’s important we reflect on what we want from journalism moving forward and that journalistic outlets think long and hard about whether their practices are striking the right balance between quality content and deliberately misleading people to get clicks.