When does giving the reader what they want turn into clickbait? It’s complicated

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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.

What got me thinking about this again was a Nieman Lab post by ethnographer Angèle Christin, who has been looking at the impact that audience metrics and analytics have had on digital journalism in the U.S. and France. Christin — a post-doctoral fellow at the New School for Social Research — spent two years observing and interviewing journalists and bloggers about analytics, and studying the way newsrooms are being changed by the web.

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.

Writing for ourselves vs. writing for readers

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.

Has this transformation resulted in more clickbait and pandering? Undoubtedly it has. But it has also arguably resulted in more content that readers actually want to read, as opposed to producing reams of newspaper articles that no one ever makes it to the end of, just because some random editor thought it was important. And that’s probably a good thing.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of rentvine

2 Comments

Veasey Conway

Hmm.

First, this post barely even unpacks clickbait.

Second, as you know, celebrity gossip is continually and predictably popular. That’s the logical end result of your argument for many current news organizations practicing ‘traditional’ journalism. If you’re fine with that, then fine.

Yes, the online world allows for much more detailed metrics. Can that be a good thing? Yes.

A question, which serves to flesh out one of my points: why is using metrics in this way advocated and practiced far less in academia? Why not let students learn exactly what they say they want to learn? Why have core course requirements? Even MOOCs, in their present form, are one-way streets compared to the argument you’re pushing.

My answer would be that colleges and universities are not facing financial strains like the news business. In the news business, metrics (and clickbait), first and foremost, are a way to bring more dollars in. You toss this aspect away in favor of a secondary benefit of metrics and clickbait — namely that content more accurately reflects a reader’s interest. Tossing aside the business reasons for clickbait is a huge thing to toss aside.

Back to the academia example. Another reason why metrics are not used in this way is because learning institutions know they possess knowledge and ways of thinking at the world that ordinary students don’t have. Most students don’t know what they want to learn and how to learn it. There was a time when I didn’t know what a primary source was. If I don’t know what it is, I can’t ask for it.

Colleges are not threatened by the democratic, easily accessible nature of Wikipedia. There’s always a space for the walled-off, one-way type of learning that classes provide.

Essentially, in theory I agree with your argument. Providing content that people want to read and look at is good — that’s a joy and a core component of creativity and learning. In practice though, I fear I’ll start seeing a lot more articles about Blue Ivy in my relentlessly curated Twitter stream.

I guess where we differ is that, in my practice, I see journalism chiefly as an art, which, like any art, values originality and the expression of unknown unknowns. Artists need to pay the bills too, of course, but doing it chiefly for the money or to appeal to the masses is a recipe for uninspired work.

Spend too much time looking at your own work (or metrics) and you start to produce in an echo chamber. Traditional journalism has its own rigidity and boxes (ex: pyramid story structures). Don’t replace it with another type of rigidity: Worshipping The Metrics.

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