News as Clickbait

If it is sometimes hard not to be jaded by the news, it is even harder not to be jaded by the reporting of the news. News media has changed rapidly over the past decade and not always to our benefit. Newspapers have evolved from static low-grade newsprint produced twice daily into electronic information hubs dynamically updating with real-time media-rich content.  Today, a newspaper is as likely to produce video reports or audio podcasts as they are to publish text. Lightweight quizzes, polls and photo montages are much more likely to feature in the place of long reads. Journalists who tweet are preferred over those who write prose.

Traditionally, newspapers were funded through advertising. It was the Mad Men world of big numbers as multinational corporations bought up page space. The move to digital changed that. Advertisers moved money out of print and increasingly to third parties operating upon the basis of the ‘page impression’. In the online world, there is one rule: the more people that see an advertisement, the more revenue it generates.

Note the key word is ‘view’ and not ‘read’. In this new economy, visitors who actually read an article are an afterthought. So long as the page is viewed, the page will generate income; highest from a North American reader, far less if the viewer is from India or China.

Many of the websites you read operate on this principal, earning a fraction of a penny every time you load a page for the first time. Only independent websites free from advertising don’t follow this logic. The rest encourage you to click and the industry behind those clicks is as ugly as a sweatshop production line. Some managers bully juniors into producing content. Concealing institutionalised plagiarism is a stock trade as ‘newsroom’ juniors scrape the web for stories and then hastily rewrite another person’s prose so it looks nothing like the original. It’s a fast nasty business. Stories have a short half-life so content updates regularly. An underperforming headline that doesn’t produce enough clicks is quickly dropped down the page. The surprise hit, perhaps snatched from social media, is promoted. A natural hierarchy of news is established. Pictures and videos dominate, as does short punchy text. Facts give way to factoids and opinion is just the content freely provided by readers ‘below the line’. Meanwhile, the long form article dies a slow agonising death.

Stories are given provocative titles calculated to appeal to our worst instincts. ‘Flights from Egypt cancelled as crisis deepens’ would not be the headline written by any hit-conscious sub editor this past week. You’d be more likely to see ’12 amazing ways holidaymakers are dealing with Egyptian crisis’. ‘Hilarious’ is a popular phrase, which you’ll see with hilarious regularity. ‘See this traveller’s hilarious answer to the travel chaos’.

This might well be the purest form of market-led economy the world has ever seen.  Anything that captures the attention has value. News is merely ‘buzz’ and dominated by images that are cute or grotesque, vulgar or provocative, ugly or celebrity. They appeal to the worst instincts in people: sexual, financial, emotional.

It’s been said that we live in a new dark age and that, centuries from now, little will remain of the words and pictures produced in the early part of the 21stC. Who will invest the money to archive the entire world’s banalities? When the current hardware fails or the file formats change, the written record of these decades will be forgotten. Websites are built upon computer code and code rarely stays the same.  Many websites now considered authoritative will fall into decline as the code is no longer maintained. Servers bills will go unpaid and then databases will be deleted and lost.

Taboola2

A typical example of Taboola ads…

The industry has even produced a new word for the English language. ‘Clickbait’ is any headlines or photograph deliberately placed to intrigue a reader so they feel compelled to click. What lies beyond the link is inconsequential and explains why often you click on a link and it takes you to an article that singularly fails to provide the promised ‘reveal’. This is the murky world of the Taboola and Outbrain ads that you see everywhere. ’21 Celebs We Bet You Didn’t Know Are Transgender’ was one ad that featured prominently on a story I read this morning. The picture was of a famous UK celebrity who definitely isn’t transgender but, of course, the picture does intrigue you and you have to click through. And when you do, page after page of more clicks await you until you finally realise that the content has nothing to do with the headline and everything to do with your prurience. Instead, among the ‘Celebs [They] Bet [We] Didn’t Know Are Transgender’ are Dana International and bearded Eurovision chantreuse Conchita Wurst. If that ethical, it doesn’t matter. They might have lost their bet but earned from our clicks.

BuzzfeedPageThis new style of ‘journalism’ has been largely attributed to the website ‘Buzzfeed’ which was started in 2006, positioning itself between the worlds of light news and viral entertainment. Buzzfeed currently enjoys huge popularity and is just outside the world’s top 100 websites. As of my writing this, the top stories include: ’16 Ways To Really, Really Annoy A Londoner’, ’19 Hilarious Pictures About Parents Who Have No Chill’, ‘This Spoof Kids Book About Hipsters is Hilarious’,  and ‘Do You Have A Butt or An Ass’.

The Buzzfeed audience is huge. Each of those articles has been viewed in excess of 400,000 times. At a fraction of a cent per view, that doesn’t make for huge revenue but it is a pure economy of scale which ultimately explains why the company was last valued at around $850 million. Contrast that with the readership of The Spectator (54,070) or The New Statesman which was reported as 30,000 in 2015. The gulf is staggering and will only get wider because all quality news websites will feel the pressure to follow the Buzzfeed style.

Just last week, The Independent‘s website (itself a Buzzfeed derivative) reported that BBC news staff are being encouraged to follow the vogue for news formatted for youth. It’s regrettable, certainly, but predictable. As news moves to ‘buzz’, fewer places are left for old school journalism. The professionalism of the industry diminishes as content is derived from increasingly dubious sources. Do any amount of web-based research and you’ll notice how quickly falsehoods are established as truths, and quotes misquoted become verbatim accounts of what was once said. In such a cheapened medium, what room is there for telling a story, clarifying facts, finding that proper balance between perspective and bias? The media already routinely fail to distinguish bloggers from journalists, commentators from advocates, amateurs from professionals. In a world that spontaneously generates content, even the distinction between good and bad fades. Too many writers now work for nothing and the phrase ‘it will look good on your CV’ has sadly replaced the promise of ‘5 pence a word’ when negotiating for their next job.

There is, admittedly, a different way of interpreting the facts and, perhaps, some reasons to be cheerful. Buzzfeed has recently started to produce serious journalism, though I sense that this is the luxury this is usually afforded to any winner in their chosen field, in the same way that Amazon opened their first high street book shop last week, after spending the past ten years contributing to the demise of so many. For the moment, this is merely a sop to an industry addicted to the advertising. It might not stay this way forever but, so long as it does, serious news journalism is about the last place you’d want to be, even if you like the buzz.

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