There’s a real science to writing click-bait headlines and its hold on audiences should not be undermined. But assessing success by measuring audiences leads to chasing clicks and that is a downward spiral into the online abyss of celebrity culture, consumerism, sports, trends and the occasional real news item, most typically something shocking and tragic, writes Paul Benedetti.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Benedetti, Editor-at-large

When I recently read that a group of Globe and Mail editors would receive bonuses based on driving subscriptions and traffic and that reporters at The Oregonian, Gawker and Forbes would be compensated on the web traffic they generated, I had an acute bout of déjà vu.

Flashback to the early 2000s, when a small band of intrepid (or perhaps optimistically insane) journalists built Canoe.ca, the online media enterprise spawned by Sun Media Corporation.

Led editorially by news and sports man Mike Simpson, a core team of experienced but forward-looking journalists, including me, were trying to figure out the new online reality. Coming out of newspaper backgrounds, all the executive producers were used to judging stories on their news value, their editorial merit (is it a “good read”?) and, yes, the level of interest of the readership. Admittedly, that evaluation was inherently subjective, affected by a host of variables including, let’s face it, the whims and idiosyncrasies of any particular editor. (We’ve all worked for editors who either loved or hated dog stories, for example.)

Nevertheless, the process works quite well most of the time. If you put a team of journalists in a room, their collective judgment around the value and importance of stories is surprisingly consistent—especially around the big stuff, like natural disasters, the election, the death of politicians or the outcome of the latest Leafs’ game.


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But the confidence we had in our news judgment had never really been tested with readers. We all had rough ideas about which stories “played” well, but none of that was based on empirical evidence aside from irate phone calls, letters to the editor and some general sense of what was popular.

But all of that changed with the web. Even as far back as the late ’90s, the Internet was equipped with tools that could tell editors (and, more ominously, publishers and proprietors) exactly what was popular with viewers and what was not. And the information was slightly shocking—at least to me.

Predictably, our sports and entertainment sections were big hits with users, but there were some other surprises. For one thing, one of most popular elements on Canoe.ca was a professional wrestling fan area set up by several clever online editors who were themselves fans.

This area—devoted essentially to the fictional trials and tribulations of over-muscled male and female entertainer/athletes—was immensely popular and had impressive traffic stats. Our young online editors also became very skilled at boosting, or “juicing,” the numbers with a series of pretty smart tricks. For example, using a picture of Pam Anderson even if the story had virtually nothing or, in fact, nothing, to do with her. (When it first launched, the National Post also had a habit of finding a way to put Anderson somewhere on the front page.)

Or, whenever possible, find a story about tennis star Anna Kournikova—with a picture. Kournikova was traffic cocaine. As Wikipedia notes, at the peak of her fame, fans looking for pictures of her made her name “one of the  most common search strings on Google” for three years running from 2001-2003.

Or, find a way to work the word “boob”—or, even better, “big boobs”—into your headline or sub-head, as in “Politicians act like ‘big boobs’ at fundraiser.”

  • Today, editors use similar tricks but tailor them to the changing nature of the online audience. So, you get the following:
  • Link anything you are writing about to Miley Cyrus. For example, “a spider lures its prey by twerking like Miley Cyrus.”
  • Compare anything to Kim Kardashian’s bum, as in “Geologists have discovered an oil reserve as big as…” or “With the federal deficit even larger than…” Well, you get the picture. And on that note, make sure to include a photo. Kardashian was number three in Google’s Most Searched People list of 2013 (behind only Drake and Miley Cyrus, who was number one).
  • Work the phrase “cute kittens” or “cute cat” into anything you write. For example, “Like herding a bunch of not-so-cute cats, Allison Redford found the task of controlling her caucus near impossible.”

Of course, some of these tricks only worked because in the earlier years of the web, the highest online users were men. (Cats, kittens and babies appear to cross all gender lines.) Today, with audiences fairly gender balanced, these ideas still work, but not as well. Instead, we have a whole new list of traffic-grabbing tricks employed by innovative editors everywhere.

The best is the impossible-to-resist-headline (like the one, I hope, on this story). You’ve seen them and likely clicked on them. They go like this: “10 of the Most Amazing Weight-loss Foods You Can Eat” or “15 Celebrity Secrets that Will Blow Your Mind” and “When She Came on Stage The Audience Booed; What Happened Next Took My Breath Away.”

These “click bait” headlines are designed with consummate skill by the editors at Upworthy, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. There’s a real science and art to writing these outlined by psychologist Nathalie Nahai and it involves the clever combination of a number, trigger word, adjective, keyword and promise. Here are a couple real ones from BuzzFeed: “31 Life-Changing Ways To Eat French Toast” and “19 True Struggles Of Being Addicted To YA Books as an Adult.”

The bait on Upworthy takes a slightly different form with teaser-style leads that entice by promising more if you click. They look like this: “A Woman Lived through Something Awful. Now She’s Helping Others Do The Same” or “Al Gore Told this Woman Something So Disturbing That She Changed Her Whole Life.”

These techniques work, and frankly, I find it hard sometimes not to click on them myself. They’re really effective! But, obviously they can undermine our collective notions of both news value and news values. This kind of headline writing lends itself naturally to the unusual and the bizarre, a focus on trends and fads, the celebration of celebrity and an inordinate amount of time and energy spent on the superficial over the substantial.

If you don’t think so, check out the most popular trending items on Twitter last year. Topping the list of most popular retweets were the death of Glee star Cory Monteith, the death of movie star Paul Walker and several tweets from the boy band One Direction. A quick look at top Google searches reveals a strikingly similar pattern. Top searches included Nelson Mandela, Paul Walker, Cory Monteith and the iPhone 5S in that order. Google itself said of the 2013 list: “The list resembles Google's top searches from 2012, which was also largely comprised of celebrity deaths, tragedies, royal figures and consumer electronics. This year is another good one for Apple, too.”

The reality is obvious. Assessing success by measuring audiences leads to chasing clicks and that is a downward spiral into the online abyss of celebrity culture, consumerism, sports, trends (like the Harlem Shake meme) and the occasional real news item, most typically something shocking and tragic (the Boston Marathon bombing; the Moore, Okla., tornado; the Zimmerman trial, etc.).

Try beating that by reporting on the proposed Election Act or the income-splitting tax amendment or the national daycare program debate or oil sands emissions output or the internal political strife in Crimea. If you incentivize journalists to chase audiences rather than to practise responsible, significant journalism, they will do just that. It’s human nature.

As evidence, check out the Globe and Mail’s April 5th round-up of the week’s online stories. One story hit all these milestones: most-read story of the week, second-most referred story on Reddit, third-most commented story and fourth-most shared story on Facebook. The story? “Four things millennials hate about you.”

The second-most watched video of the week? A grainy gas station cam recording of MP Eve Adams having a meltdown about her inadequate car wash.

In the same week, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) released its latest  “blockbuster” report warning the world of serious threats to global food stocks and human security. As far as I can tell, the IPCC story did not crack anyone’s top story list for the week. Maybe they should have called the story, “You Won’t Believe the 10 Terrible Things That are Going to Happen to the World: Hint: Get a Life Raft and Some Sun Block.”

I don’t have a problem with the talented writers employed at these companies trying to drive page views and profits. But let’s not confuse content, eyeballs, audience and clicks with journalism. The reasons the newsroom was historically not directly responsible for generating profits were good ones.

Driving circulation (or traffic) with rumours or false stories (only to have corrections generate more clicks) is not good journalism. Pandering to public taste or prurient interest is not good journalism. Disguising sponsored content as news is not good journalism. The cornerstones of good journalism are, in many ways, at odds with the demands of entrepreneurialism and the market.

As Kovach and Rosenstiel point out in their seminal book, The Elements of Journalism, journalism has an obligation to the truth, its first loyalty is to citizens and its essence is a discipline of verification. As well, they write that journalism must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant and must keep the news comprehensive and proportional. Many of these prescriptions are obviously antithetical to the sole pursuit of driving traffic or maximizing profits. Posting rumours, stoking controversy, using link bait to promote the novel or sensational, focusing on celebrity and other social trivia are all proven traffic drivers and revenue generators. So, that might be good business.

But it’s not good journalism.

 

Paul Benedetti is lecturer in the master of arts in journalism program at the faculty of information and media Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.  He is the former deputy editor of J-Source and is now J-Source editor-at-large. He lives in Hamilton, Ont. and continues to write for various publications.

 

 


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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.