Let’s start using clickbait for good
John Herrman's take on the proliferation of "takes" — seemingly every news organization's urge to publish something, no matter how unoriginal, about the hot issue of the day — has of course generated lots of takes on his piece itself.
In his post at the Awl, Herrman describes how news outlet after news outlet posted anything they could about a nonstory in July — the EPA accidentally sending a tweet about Kim Kardashian's app:
There were dozens more of these stories, all about a single tweet, from virtually every outlet that publishes news. And they served their purpose admirably: They left no attention on the table. They represent "we should have something on this" news impulse stripped to its barest form, left unspoken and carried out as a matter of course. Endless minimalist Takes, obviously duplicative from the producer's side but not necessarily from the other, all drawing energy from a single glowing unit of information.
My go-to example of a legacy news organization's "ephemeral, aggregated, feather-light blog posts," as Alex Pareene described them in a riff on Herrman's piece at the Dish: "This Is What a Kiss Looks Like From Inside Your Mouth," from venerable Time magazine.
Time more than doubled its unique visitors in the span of a year by nearly doubling its output of content. It's not alone in that strategy, of course. Lucia Moses reported at Digiday this week that the New York Daily News is now publishing up to 300 posts per day. Two years ago it published 50 per day. You don't achieve a sixfold increase in content with deep, original reporting.
But I pick on Time — which claims not to engage in clickbait — because its redesigned site also admirably attempts to convert those who take the Kardashian bait into visitors that stay for some hard news. The site's continuous scroll means whatever Time.com story you arrive at first will transition into the top story of the moment, as determined by editors.
Herrman's post at the Awl comes a week after Facebook announced it was cracking down on clickbait by tracking how long users actually spend with the links they click. So there's a chance these duplicative posts will be less likely to crowd your News Feed in the future if readers click away quickly once they realize there's nothing new.
But Facebook making it harder for low-quality content to rule the News Feed might not keep publishers from trying. As Mathew Ingram notes at GigaOm, "if your 'take' on a specific event gets clicked on or shared the right way, it could become a massive traffic driver, pushing millions of eyeballs to your site." You can afford to have a fairly low hit rate on stuff that takes two minutes to produce and that's "written by 20-somethings making a (comparative) pittance," as Pareene put it.
Yeah, this isn't a particularly great thing for journalism, but it doesn't have to be a disaster, either, if those cheap clicks subsidize something greater. If news organizations are willing to risk weakening their brands in an effort to save them, they should at least find a way for readers who click a wholly unoriginal take on a nonstory to be exposed to news that matters, too — the stories that might be less likely to take off on Facebook.
After all, homepages are less important than they used to be, and while Facebook users have incidental contact with news, they're not guaranteed to see important stories, as Ferguson demonstrated. If you're like most people and don't read the newspaper anymore, there's no front page to glance at before reaching the sports scores. Article pages are the natural place now for providing that incidental contact with hard news.
Until we get to a point where news business models reward value rather than volume, as Jeff Jarvis hopes, clickbait and quick takes aren't going away. Time bows to the pressure to jump on trends and superficial viral videos just like anyone else, but at least it has found a way to give deeper news a chance, too, once they get those initial clicks.