“Clickbait” has become a term that could be used to describe many publications approach to their social media outlets, but beyond the irritating “5 things you didn’t know you were doing wrong” articles that everyone has clicked on more than they would like to admit, what does this new style of reporting mean for journalism?
Some may consider print journalism to be dying, others insist that it will simply adapt to this new change, but social media has changed not only the way in which the reader interacts with the articles published, but also changed the media’s mode of operation.
The media industry is no stranger to changing circumstances. The traditional print newspaper has had to deal with the threat of television, radio and the Internet, and whilst these new formats have been engulfed into what we consider to be “the media”, social media is a completely different kettle of fish.
Social media has become a eclectic mix of reportage. Articles are shared, liked and retweeted from newsfeed to newsfeed, and this has become the goal for many news outlets.
“Clicks” have become as important as circulation used to be for traditional print publications, with many publications centering their focus around producing articles that are tailored to be shared and liked on social media.
One publication in particular stands out: The Independent.
The Independent declared itself profitable for the first time in 20 years, 6 months after axing their print publication.
Alan Philps, a former foreign correspondent for Reuters, the Sunday correspondent and the daily telegraph, said: “There’s been a debate amongst journalists for The Independent going crazy for clickbait because you can actually measure how many people are clicking on your site.
“That doesn’t mean they are the sort of people you want to advertise to or that they have any loyalty to you.”
Sabra Ayres, a freelance foreign correspondent that has worked for outlets such as The LA Times and Al Jazeera America, and thinks that whilst reader loyalties may be on the decline, so too is the loyalty of the journalist.
Relying on freelance journalists to supply their content means that journalists are pitching their work to multiple publications and, in Ayres opinion, potentially cutting corners and jeopardizing standards in order to sell the story.
Whilst loyalties may come into question, publications are turning to click bait as it is a direct statistic they can show to advertisers and say: ‘look how many people could see you advert.’
Even the most staunch ‘anti-clickbait’ critic would have to agree that this is an attractive prospect for a failing newspaper, a seemingly obvious way to get some much needed inflow in their coffers.
However it is here we fall back to the newsfeed. If your article is shared across newsfeeds galore, yes you will have more people visiting your site, but who is to say these people will then become loyal readers?
“I think the amount of clickbait stuff they’ve [the Independent] done has lowered them amongst serious newspaper readers,” Philps said.
“Newspapers started giving away their stuff and it become accepted that news is a commodity which you get for free.
“People look at their phones and rarely distinguish the source of it.”
This lack of appreciation for high quality journalism may be another reason that publications are turning to clickbait, but the statistics don’t back up this claim.
In a study in 2016 carried out by the PEW research center, it was found that the amount of people interacting with longform articles was similar to the amount spent on short form articles.
However, the time engaged with the longform articles was over double the time spent on short form articles.
If this new direction The Independent has decided to go down has increased online traffic but has reduced the amount of time people are spending actually engaging with their content, then the media is seemingly wrestling with a question: ‘what’s more important, the quality of our reporting or our online traffic?’
It may not be the case for all publications to ask themselves this question, but it seems that more of them are having to change the way they operate in order to stay afloat.
Now although the online model for the Independent has seemingly brought them a degree of success financially, if the standard of journalism is slipping, then surely this is more detrimental than anything else?
Sabra Ayres doesn’t think that standards have dropped, and thinks that we are still coming to grips with this change in how the media is operating.
“I think there is so much space out there for different types of media that I don’t think it’s saturated yet.
“There is an appetite in the world for all kinds of media, I don’t think everybody is satisfied yet.”
With all this online content available for free and at relative ease, you would think that this would allow people to access more opinions and information that may differ to their own.
Even if not actively seeking it, the nature of this “social media news” is that things are shared and posted, and news feeds becomes a discussion, whether you agree with the content you are viewing or not.
Yet both Philps and Ayres agree that although there may be more free content now that is readily available online, people are in fact more inclined to gravitate towards articles that already back up their opinions.
“What I’ve seen in the American audience is that people have sort of migrated towards those opinions that reiterate the opinions they already have and that’s another challenge for the media,” said Ayres.
Another challenge that presents itself to the media is how to use this increase of online traffic to their advantage.
The Independent have 14 million unique visitors to their website a month via mobile phone, with a further 5 million accessing their site via PC.
The Guardian however has more visitors in both areas, with 17 million visiting their website via mobile phone and 7 million via PC, yet the Guardian is struggling financially.
At the bottom of articles on the Guardian website there is a message that asks for support to help secure the future of the publication.
Now if the Guardian, a publication that has more of an online presence than the Independent is struggling, it hard to ignore the costs of print publication.
If more and more publications are shifting to this online mode of reporting, the media needs to make sure that reporting still occupies the highest standard, and our social media feeds do not become overrun with clickbait articles.