If you’re a regular reader here, you probably use the term clickbait in the pejorative sense, like a dirty word. But if you’re reading this, you clicked.
The title comes from an actual headline I clicked on this morning.
Couple calls 911 to report midgets, possums jumping out of refrigerator
The article itself has little value. No one needed to know this information. No one’s quality of life, safety, or knowledge of their community or world were increased by the story. It’s callous in its exploitation of the tragic of many people deep in the depths of drug addiction.
A lot of us — myself included — ride a valiant high horse, tut-tutting the prevalence of click bait, police blotter “reporting,” and two paragraph community interest pieces when so much else goes unreported. Personally, I’d like to see it all replaced by more serial stories, longer context pieces, and deeper researched stories. And I’d give my right arm for an outright ban on interviews with a Utahn who once traveled to [X Country] when an unrelated-at-all-to-vacationing event takes place in [X Country]. You’ve seen them. “Super-storm devastation in Nepal! Let’s check in with Laverne, from Layton, who was in Nepal last summer on a lovely vacation. Laverne, what do you think of this tragic news?” Who cares?
But I’m not the average news consumer, and arguably, neither are you. And for better or worse, the data say the average news consumer loves the local takes, the inane community interest stories, the shorter rapid-style online stories, and, yes, even the click bait. The data, of course, being traffic.
And the article above translated to traffic. San Antonio 4News enjoyed a few thousand of clicks, and hundreds of shares via social media for the 25 min it took someone to research, write, proof-read, and post this report. Everyone one of those clicks and shares (in theory) translates to not only increased ad revenue, but also plays a role in rates for the news station. And if the still limited science of social media habits holds up, those clicks and shares also translate to loyalty and dependency from readers.
Click bait is not a modern media concept. Headline and lede writing to grab your eyeballs were elevated to an art soon after the printing press was invented. One of the first newspapers to break news the Civil War had begun did so, in 1861, with the headline “War! War! War!” At the time that meant the headline newsboys shouting the headline on street corners, and the front pages was plastered prominently in storefront windows, but it was click bait all the same.
Earlier this year, Slant magazine, Columbia Journalism Review reported, launched a unique bonus structure for staff writers: $100 a month and $5 more for each 500 clicks on a story. The UK’s National Union of Journalists has levied concerns British newspapers’ focus on traffic will trivialize and “dumb down” the news after the Trinity Mirror announced plans to set “click targets” for journalists. The NUJ is probably right. But I’ve also heard arguments from several different scholars in Utah’s schools of journalism that Twitter’s 140 characters and the traditional newspaper headline are a perfect marriage, and Facebook shares are far cheaper than doorstep delivery. Your 10 pm news has always been 2-minute segments wrapped around a 5-minute feature.
If you are concerned about the concentration of media, or the prospects of Utah one day being a one newspaper state, perhaps it’s time to give click bait its due. Maybe it’s time to give newspapers, television, and radio some breathing room — without being complacent or too forgiving, of course — as they figure out how to stay alive in a sea of rapid change. I just don’t see less outlets equaling more and better news, simply because less outlets means more journalists bagging groceries instead of going to a city council meeting. That may seem trivial, but I guarantee you it is not. Even if only one out of every five stories on a news site is making us smarter or more informed, what if that one story wouldn’t exist without the other four? If those are my current choices, I say hit me with your best Justin Bieber listicle, Mr. Newspaper Man!