The click click club: Tim Murphy muses on the impact of clickbait

A 21st century addition to the dictionary but an age-old practice.

Named after the computer mouse, the practice of withholding information from readers is considered to be a result of the short attention spans of the internet age, and inundation of cat videos.

With that in mind, many have taken it upon themselves to rewrite history in the form of clickbait headlines, including: “This lady was told to sit at the back of the bus, but what she did next shocked everyone. Check out that guy’s face!”, “You won’t believe what was found in this abandoned wooden horse” and “They called her the Unsinkable Ship. You won’t believe what happened next”.

However, take a look through 19th century newspapers and you will see those headlines, while funny, would in fact have been a perfect fit. Back then the effort to sensationalise news to attract the readers was known as a form of ‘yellow journalism’.

The term came from a comic strip in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, called Hogan’s Alley and its character called ‘The Yellow Kid’. He was the 19th century equivalent to a cat video in the newspaper competition for readers.

Today, ‘yellow journalism’ remains, to describe the techniques used to get more people to read the content.

And yes, it was the same Pulitzer, whose name now represents one of the most respected honours in journalism.

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The very concept of journalism dying at the feet of audience metrics is, in itself, a clickbait technique overstating a premise to troll and draw attention. Google the words ‘clickbait will be the death of journalism’ and see for yourself all those who’ve deployed its catastrophist wording to count another unique or page view.

There’s a very real argument beyond the bait, however. It is an old one. Gizmodo.com analysed this and deployed this, high-appeal headline: “A history of clickbait: The First 100 years”.

Tabloid newspapers have been fighting for eyeballs and sales since the days of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst in the 19th Century and the age of ‘yellow journalism.

And in most markets tabloids, red tops, the sensationalist press, have outsold their ‘quality’ rivals. 

Even in New Zealand in the sober world of broadsheet newspapering these past decades, the allegation of ‘beating up’ a news story to heighten its sex appeal was commonplace. Critics predicted the end of journalism as we know it.

So the idea now that our news websites are collectively committing journalism-icide isn’t wholly new. And it isn’t wholly wrong. But it is not because they have gone for high appeal over worthiness or headlines and news selections that are sensational — in that they awaken our senses. It is that, in most cases, they are doing it so very averagely. 

Minds behind the trash

English tabloidism, so abhorrent to many, was created by quiet geniuses. Brilliant men and women finding the essence of an issue, hitting readers over the head with it, giving ordinary people’s take on it and allowing themselves and their audience a bit of a laugh, or a gasp or a visceral outburst of anger.

Many general news mass market websites both here and overseas just don’t display the cleverness or news judgment to justify the freneticism. They can display a randomness of selection, a tin ear to nuance and a try-hard urging for readers to get with a stillborn idea. It might get a click but it just serves to put people off.

The truly trivial can overwhelm even the clever clickbait of sensational hard news. Foreign stories are paraded with a geographic anonymity that dupes and frustrates readers who bother with that click. Live analytics that tell desk editors the Bachelor NZ is out-rating all else can see a kind-of journalistic lobotomy occur: and end up with six, 10 or 13 articles on that same reality TV programme on one homepage at once.

Now again this is not the fault of journalists alone. The news organisations themselves have decided that being biggest, and measuring that not by revenue or profit or engagement times but by unique monthly visitors, is the Holy Grail.

News obesity

Fairfax’s stuff.co.nz was first to put being biggest ahead of best. It now boasts more than 2 million uniques a month, is bigger than the NZ Government site and Trade Me and sits a confronting 400,000 readers/viewers ahead of nzherald.co.nz on 1.6m.

The Herald has in the past 18 months also targeted being number one. It has mimicked Stuff, shadowed it, copied it and now forced Stuff to do the same in return. They have both lifted what commentators call their ‘digital metabolism’ and cannot be faulted for the number of pieces of content produced and highlighted daily or the colour, pace or cutesiness of their menu.

Within these sites, beyond the homepages or the top half of the homepages, and not so often directed out via social channels like Facebook and Twitter is so much good journalism.

It perhaps isn’t so much the death of journalism but a big cover-up. Sweeping the journalism under the fluff of the carpet. And here is the worry. If the audience is constantly presented the sugar and not the protein or greens, there is a risk that an obesity crisis of information develops. People are left dulled and de-energised.

It doesn’t have to happen. Excellent news organisations, general and mass market ones, which have inspired executive leadership are finding a third way between clickbait and earnestness.

The Washington Post under Amazon leader Jeff Bezos has blended what the customer wants (the high-appeal, the personality, the pace and the interaction) with the impactful. When it (briefly) passed the New York Times in the monthly uniques audience late last year, the Post talked up an aim to be the ‘publication of record’. 

That old descriptor has gone well out of fashion; it’s seen as the judgment-less, appeal-less text dump of newspapers of old trying to jam in every darn, inconsequential or dull detail of the day beforehand.

Bezos’ Washington Post sees it, however, as a standard to be embraced. According to Ken Doctor, the writer of the blog Newsonomics and contributor to PoliticoBezos sees it as a record “of the most interesting stories not just any story that might be dutifully covered.”

 It wants, as Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy so wonderfully declares, ‘to do the news’.

The Post is using tabloid techniques –The Fix politics blog by Chris Cillizza has been a revelation throughout the Republican and Democratic Primary season in its attitude and impact, humour and provocations.  But it is doing it cleverly, balanced with stories that matter and it doesn’t seem to boss the reader about, fewer ‘You Must Reads’ and more sensual enticement.

Incidentally, before we leave the terrific Ken Doctor, he is one who seriously questions the legitimacy of news organisations trumpeting monthly unique numbers. “I’ve often said that counting a monthly unique visitor is like counting a newspaper print reader as someone standing in Times Square who catches a page of flying newspaper, whipped up by a wintry wind.

“The web, through social (light and dark) and search provides so many one-and-dones as to be almost laughable – but countable,” Doctor wrote in Politico.

‘We get the media we can afford’

Good sites are finding ways to present good stories and journalism in ways that attract real, three dimensional readership or viewing.

The term ‘clickbait’ offends many journalists and others trying hard to use digital techniques to grab the eyes and time of increasingly digitally overloaded consumers. David Fisher, the Herald’s worldly-wise investigative reporter, quipped at the Auckland Writers’ Festival panel on the media that he instead uses the term “Content Readers Appreciate.” CRAp for the uninitiated.

Do we get the media, the journalism we deserve? Another panellist, blogger Giovanni Tiso, reckoned we get the media we can afford. I took that to mean the lower level of judgment, the less nutritious fare, the random and hasty flashes, are down to a stressed news industry cutting costs and losing its way.

A founder of the excellent Politico site, Jim VandeHei, caused waves in April when he blasted the news industry for falling into ‘crap trap’ journalism aimed at winning audiences at the expense of substance.

“They’ve deluded themselves that the better play was to go for the biggest audience possible, using stupid web tricks to draw them in. These include misleading but clicky headlines, feel-good lists, sexy photos and exploding watermelons.”

VandeHei, no old-school legacy media apologist, was hopeful of change. “Here’s the good news. This era is being flushed away. Some companies feel self-conscious about the trash they are producing. Many others realise it’s simply not a good business model.

“The savviest ones see a very cool reason to change. A content revolution is picking up speed, promising a profitable future for companies that can lock down loyal audiences, especially those built around higher-quality content.”

Joshua Topolsky, a Bloomberg digital journalist, has a similar view.  His message to online publishers (and he includes new ventures as well as old mutton-dressed-as-lamb websites) is:

“Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they’ll go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.”

He had encouragement for markets like ours, too, I think. “The truth is that the best and most important things the media has ever made were not made to reach the most people – they were made to reach the right people.”

Marketers, advertisers and custodians of brands will recognise that song.  

And in the New Zealand market, there is hope on a number of fronts that journalism that presents society with a real, moving snapshot of itself and the things that matter within it will live on.

Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, put it well in a speech to communications graduates at Temple University in the United States. “Communication, people to people, is in a state of breakdown. Too often we are inclined only to talk. And as we all talk we have raised the volume – to a level where we can scarcely hear each other.

“A lower volume would allow us to hear better and then to really listen.”

Time to whisper

In the New Zealand market, the potential merger between the two big legacy news publishers, NZME and Fairfax NZ, presents an opportunity for us to turn the volume down. Not to scream for attention but to entice, persuade and convey the news.

It is possible that a joint company will retain the mass-populist stuff.co.nz site and then play the nzherald.co.nz site as a venue for a journalism not manipulated by the sugar-rush that audiences can fall for and then regret later. A higher-quality – read that as a  broader, deeper reporting of public issues but always holding to the value that dullness is our enemy – nzherald.co.nz could be the ‘good shit’ Topolsky identifies.

At the same time the merger will prompt other journalistic digital ventures to expand or surface. They might not compete on scale with the big two but as minority audience alternatives, with consumers’ needs foremost and their own tone and spirit, they will be outlets for journalism.

An existing example is thespinoff.co.nz. I declare an interest here, having contributed articles to the site this year. But I contributed them because it was doing journalism, giving people meat, adding to debate and at all times not taking itself too seriously. It’s fun. It understands the zeitgeist.

Fine work is also being done at radionz.co.nz, at Richard Harman’s politik.co.nz which is a paid-for politics and economic news and views site, and by Bernard Hickey at his hivenews.co.nz and interest.co.nz platforms.

All of this change is in the lee of the great floating Ark of audience-time globally, Facebook. Its algorithms which vet, rate and highlight the news feeds you choose to have on your timeline can be as addicted to the language of clickbait as the next homepage editor. More so at times.

Yet, it is possible Facebook is one reason journalism and broad public debate and understanding won’t die any time soon. By ensuring Facebook users see a breadth of news types, not solely the superficial, the network could well limit the danger of people relying on poorly conceived echo chambers – sites telling them only what they agree with.

And Facebook has of course lowered the cost of entry to content creators looking to reach an audience. Hell, you don’t even need your own site or ‘home’ for your content now. Via Instant Articles you can reach out – or be spread out – to readers without anyone landing on you.

It is true that contrived angst and manufactured outrage still litter Facebook feeds.  But as John West wrote in Quartz in March, “To combat the hot take, we need personal experience and real reporting. We need to understand that our metrics are broken and our methods of tracking insufficient.”

He seeks a ‘panacea of empathetic investigative journalism, which presents nuance and depth as virtues rather than merely striving for the most strident take imaginable.

“We have the antidotes. We need only allow ourselves inoculation.”

  • Tim Murphy is an Auckland journalist who was editor and editor-in chief of the New Zealand Herald from 2001 to 2015.
  • This story first appeared in the Media edition of NZ Marketing

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