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What Clicks With Readers Is Good For Journalism

Taking issue with some of clickbait’s critics, Tom Hedley insists that grabbing the readers’ attention – by whatever means necessary – is true to the spirit of journalism.

Superb Birds of Paradise perform Strictly-worthy courtship dances to secure their mates, and male Bowerbirds build large, elaborate structures out of twigs and decorate them with flowers, feathers and even rubbish, all in the name of love.

And clickbait, well, clickbait is the peacock. You can’t miss it. It’s sensational and in your face, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty you’ll find it’s simply just another bird. The crux of the matter is that journalists have been fine-tuning techniques to reach the masses for hundreds of years, and this decade it’s all about the bait and click.

It’s a simple yet psychologically intelligent approach of inspiring curiosity across newsfeeds all over the world. It works, but it has certainly had its fair share of haters, and this, hopefully, is my chance to riposte.

I recently stumbled across a rather peculiar article in Elle, in which the writer publicly disowned her entire journalistic works from 2009 to 2011. The headline : ‘My private shame: you’ve fallen for my clickbait headlines’. She described her work as ‘shameful’, ‘embarrassing’ and in opposition to what she believes good writing is. But she was good at it. She made a decent living. And she had a job.

As far as I was aware, writing intuitive and punchy headlines that persuade readers to buy into your content is the epitome of great journalism. One of the greatest headline writers of all time, Vinnie Musetto, has been hailed as the ‘Godfather of clickbait’ in the New York Post and congratulated by the Times and the Guardian for his ‘flawless’ lead: ‘Headless body in topless bar’. A story narrating the scene of a 1983 murder, where a man killed the owner of a strip club, and then proceeded to force a patron to remove the victim’s head. Vinnie’s other works include the just as dramatic: ‘500Lb sex maniac goes free’ and the more sensational: ‘I slept with a trumpet’. And this was nearly 30 years ago.

Which is why, the often-foremost dig at the technique is that it’s degrading to the most ancient public service that is journalism. A colleague and fellow writer for Proof Reading accuses clickbait of prioritising the fast and loose approach, while benching ‘informative’ and ‘comprehensive’ to the reserve squad.

But when exactly has the latter been compromised by clickbait? It’s not as though the media is now ruled by ’10 amazing ways to shave inches off your waist’, is it? I like to think that every publication should have its time and place to pursue readership, and it’s up to the readership to pursue the publication. In all honestly, if you were to analyse your Facebook newsfeed and discover that you now know more about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and crazy things girls do at parties, it’s because that is exactly what you subscribe to. It is the public’s own disengagement and personal disinterests that block political discussion and involvement.

A second notion (which I like to think is most often to be found in the Reuters office) is that only moronic publications utilise clickbait. My thoughts? Only a moron would utilise clickbait and do it wrong. Who’s to say that clickbait isn’t a rock-solid 21st century investment into journalism? A well-rounded, curiosity-inspiring headline will often lead to a click, and, if the content is sound and non-deceiving, a click could turn into a subscription. If, however, the publication gets it grossly wrong, the very same click turns into an unsatisfied reader, which will rarely, if ever, visit the page again.

Buzzfeed is the perfect example of how a heretic company can utilise the clickbait framework to its full potential. The website sees upwards of 150 million users through its doors everyday and is valued at $850 million dollars. Certainly not a number to scoff at when the Times and the Guardian have been on their knees for years.

In 2014, Buzzfeed released a statement aimed directly at their critics in an attempt to educate the world on clickbait. Editor-in-chief Ben Smith tells us that Buzzfeed’s business thesis is ‘to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it’ – and they’re doing it well. A quick scan of their Facebook newsfeed presents the evidence. ’19 Things You Only Get If You’re A Lazy Girl Who Hates Getting Ready’. 1285 shares. ’27 Art History Photos That Are Too Funny For Their Own Good’. 4618 shares. And my personal favourite: ’23 Things All People With long, Lustrous Hair Will Understand’. 5003 shares.

‘The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them,’ he continues, then goes on to offer a vivid description of misleading clickbait as ‘pollution’ of the newsfeed.

In fact, Buzzfeed doesn’t actually charge its advertisers per click. They have introduced a sustainable and workable economic environment into journalism for the masses, which doesn’t conflict with the core values of the pioneers. This is the future of journalism, whether you turn your nose up or not.

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