The last decade has seen the number of professional journalists drop dramatically across the globe. In the UK, they fell around one-third between 2001 and 2010, while in the US they were down by a similar amount between 2006 and 2013. The decline has been even higher in Australia, where they fell 20% between 2012 and 2014 alone. It would be easy to look at these numbers and think these are end times for journalists. And you’d likely be right, but the dramatic decline is not necessarily the most worrying thing facing the profession. Major publishers are failing with their data. The continued focus on basic metrics like ‘pageviews’ means that those journalists still in work are being forced into a race to the bottom that could see media transformed into a sea of sensationalized mistruths that will make ‘Freddie Ate My Hamster’ look Pulitzer Prize winning - with widespread ramifications to society.
UK daily newspaper City AM is the most recent publisher to be guilty of this. City AM have taken the decision to change their business model and introduce content delivered by ’contributors', who will be paid according to the number of page views their articles generate. This failure to look at any other metric that could indicate a quality article suggests that the race to the bottom is now no longer the preserve of clickbait websites, it has infiltrated what would once have been considered more respectable media.
Clicks are not an indicator of good journalism. They are usually simply a sign of a sensationalized headline linking to a story with little actual value. Paying per view is essentially a call to arms for journalists to engage in this kind of behavior. Asking a journalist to tell the truth while paying them for views is like asking a dog to beg for treats by leaving the bag on the floor.
Emerson Spartz, the so-called ‘King of Clickbait’, is the founder of Dose Media, which runs websites like omgfacts.com. They use algorithms to find stories that are most likely to be shared on social media while simultaneously producing dozens of different headlines for the same story and quickly assessing which is working the best. Some of their recent gems include ‘9 Reasons You Should Get a Basset Hound’ and ‘7 Amazing Perks Of Moving In With A Gemini.’ Spartz explained the key to getting viral content in an interview earlier this year with journalism website, Poynter: ’Positive content tends to be shared at dramatically higher rates than negative content. Traditional news tends to be more negative in nature than the most shared content, which is why the vast majority of our content has a positive theme to it. It's mostly for identity reasons. Positive content is more likely what one uses to promote oneself. It's just something we find. Anger is the exception. If a story induces anger, share rates can be extraordinarily high. Anger is a high arousal emotion.’
Spartz’s comment is revealing in the direction that media is already heading in, with emotion and rage now the driving force behind online content. This has a tremendous impact not only on journalism, but even more dangerously for politics, as we have seen in the rise of several less than savoury political choices. And this will continue, for the simple reason that it attracts advertising, with some publishers finding that more salacious headlines can increase traffic by more than 15 times. However, this simple model of attracting page clicks may no longer be enough.
The alternative to this is moving away from page views as a metric and towards deep analytics. For publishers, it requires a more intensive examination of how audiences act on the page - at which point of a story they are likely to read until, how they interact with links to other stories by the same author, and so forth. For advertisers, buying traffic for traffic’s sake is no longer viable. It doesn’t matter how many views a story gets because brands’ main objective for their adverts being on a page is reaching a specific type of customer. If a publisher is bringing in 20 million page impressions to clickbait stories like ‘9 Reasons You Should Play Be Scared To Go Outside’, the bid price on those clicks and overall value of the content is likely to actually be less than better quality content with half of those page impressions as it has attracted a more valuable audience. There needs to be a more accurate measurement of audience value beyond just clicks provided to marketers and agencies. This will have a knock-on impact on the quality of content being put out.
We are already seeing this at some publishers. In a rather unlikely twist given their history as one of the leaders of clickbait social media content, website Upworthy are showing others the way forward. Upworthy is using its data to increase the quality of its content, revealing how elements like humor and a story structure that built in suspense could draw in readers and keep engaged with the page. In February 2014, Upworthy announced that it introducing a new metric called ‘attention minutes,’ to measure how its stories were doing. This includes metrics like time spent on the page, but its blended with larger mix of information that provide a three-dimensional view of user behavior. Amy O’Leary, Upworthy’s editorial director notes that, ‘There’s a moment when someone is deciding to commit to reading your story. I think it’s a very interesting narrative moment. It’s not just, ‘on average, do people spend 30 seconds or 90 seconds on this piece,’ but you can really try to understand while people are deciding if they’re going to stick with you — what are you doing in terms of the storytelling to make the case that this is going to fulfill their expectations, enlighten them in some way, or provide what they’re looking for.’ If journalism is going to flourish in the future, it is attention minutes that journalists should be paid for, not view counts, and City AM should look again at their model.