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Baiting the reader: Identifying the newspaper version of clickbait. By Sean Dodson

A group of former editors, academics and commentators have come together to produce a major new book looking at the future of journalism.

Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? contains a number of chapters specifically focusing on the regional press industry and we are serialising some of these on HoldtheFrontPage this week.

In our third extract, Sean Dodson, postgraduate leader in Journalism at Leeds Beckett University, argues the phenomenon of online ‘listicles’ is doing nothing to help the cause of the regional press.

Tomorrow, former Essex Chronicle editor Alan Geere will give the contrasting view – that the impact of so-called ‘clickbait’ in the regional press has been greatly exaggerated.


sean-dodsonIn July 2016, the Croydon Advertiser, a 123-year-old newspaper, published two lookalike stories on consecutive, facing pages. Headlined ‘13 things you’ll know if you are a Southern rail passenger’ and ‘9 things you didn’t know about Blockbuster’ the articles stood out for their striking similarity.

Both articles were an example of an editorial phenomenon more commonly associated with the Internet – the listicle. A portmanteau of ‘list’ and ‘article’, listicles are so incredibly popular right now, but also controversial. They are an anathema to some critics who prize traditional journalistic values, while to others listicles are not even journalism but a ‘kind of cheap content-creation’ and, to yet more, ‘listicles are the inevitable result of cost-cutting. Indeed, the Croydon Advertiser’s articles appeared after a newsroom restructure: one wag on Twitter called them ‘Buzzfeed on paper’, a reference to the highly successful social news and entertainment company that publishes thousands of listicles every week.

Listicles, like other forms of clickbait, assume the public want information in quick hits and ‘prefer mindless fluff and trivia over hard news and heavy stories’. Listicles are far from new, however, The Ten Commandments are an early example, and they not exclusive to the Internet. Traditionally print journalism has used lists in distinct ways: either as an attendant to news and feature articles or as a standalone special (such as the Sunday Times Rich List); the convention has also been, because space is limited, that lists work best in denominations of 10. The ‘100 best free things to do this week’ or ‘10 things we learnt about the Budget’ and so on. But on sites such as Buzzfeed, such traditional conventions are ignored. Lists start and end where they fall, as did those in the Croydon Advertiser.

Shifting powers

Use of listicles in newspapers is an example, moreover, of a shift in the power relations of print and online journalism. Today more journalists work online than in print and online ads are more valuable than display advertising. It is significant, moreover, because the format is no longer dictated by the conventions of print, but mimic the looser set of conventions born of the Internet. As such, listicles form part of a wider phenomenon of clickbait, a pejorative term used to describe web content designed to capture an online audience in the hope of generating advertising revenue, often at the expense of traditional journalistic values, e.g. accuracy, balance or fairness.

Clickbait – bait laid to lure clicks – is instead known for dubious quality, an absence of simple attribution and a scant appetite for exclusivity (you know, actual scoops, the stuff that counts). Facts are pulled, instead, from the web, then knocked together randomly, by ‘contributors’ doing unpaid work for sites such as The Huffington Post (‘11 Products That Make Cats More Like Humans’), Buzzfeed (‘29 Mind Blowing Ways You Can Eat Chips’) and Upworthy (‘This Story Is So Incredible, The English Language Does Not Contain A Superlative Fit To Describe It. So I’m Just Going To Make One Up. Fantaculous [sic]’).

And now, more recently, clickbait formats have made the pages of established news organisations. The Independent has been much lambasted for resorting to the tactic of late (typical Indy click-bait headline ‘Matt LeBlanc: I need to to [sic] get back into watching Game of Thrones… to see Emilia Clarke naked’ (Independent, 2016). How soon a respectable newspaper of the centre-left can be transformed into a less-respectable chronicler of clickbait.

Moreover, media commentators believe that clickbait lacks ‘merit’ and that it is ‘rarely newsworthy.’ Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief at The Guardian has written that ‘chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity undermines the value of journalism.’

Chips are down

A concrete expression of this came in April 2016. The Gloucestershire Echo featured a story about litter. One morning someone dropped a bag of fast food on the pavement in the centre of Cheltenham. Now, this wasn’t an instance of an unusual type of litter or an epidemic of litter. It was ordinary litter, the sort seen on every high street every day of the week. Even so, the Echo published a photograph of the rubbish and used it as the basis for a story (‘Entire KFC feast of fried chicken breasts and fries strewn across Cheltenham pavement this morning’). An online team updated an incredulous public with a live blog throughout the day. Other papers and websites followed, most notably Metro, a national daily.

Fast food must be easy pickings for time-strapped journalists. Trinity Mirror, the paper’s owner, had been here before. In 2013, the Echo’s sister paper, The (Gloucester) Citizen, had run a news story asking ‘Is this the biggest chip in Gloucestershire?’ complete with a user-generated image of the admittedly prodigious slice of deep-fried potato. In Folkestone, meanwhile, The Herald caused a minor social media sensation with its front-page splash: ‘Out-of-datepasty is sold to young mum’.

And so consider, for a moment, that discarded fast food wrappers and stale pasties are simply not news. Not in any conventional way. Not as generations of reporters have understood news to be. There is widespread academic consensus on this. A solitary piece of litter or a big chip or a stale pasty does not register on any of the news values codified by either Galtung and Ruge (1965) or Harcup and O’Neill (2001). So not news, then, but clickbait. And if such ‘tripe’ is printed in the paper, it is a short reach to the phrase ‘page bait’. Cheap, and trivial content designed to tickle casually at the ribs, without the rationale of attracting actual pay-per- click adverts.

The economics of the strategy, if one dignifies it, must be that publishers are able to reuse website content in print, instead of having to pay people to produce separate content. The cost is further reduced if usergenerated content can be used in the place of paying for original journalism.

Amateur calling

Can we expect more? You bet. Regionals across the land are using ever more content written by amateurs. Not only to strafe bullshit across cyberspace in the hope of attracting enough pay-per-click advertisements, but also to fill newspapers under-staffed chronically by rounds of job losses.

In 2013, Johnson Press relaunched its Lincolnshire regional The Bourne Local, as a ‘people’s paper’ featuring up to 75 per cent content supplied by the area’s local people – unpaid of course. The experiment was repeated in Yorkshire at the Pocklington Post, initially reviving both paid-for titles. The experiment has not been extended to other papers in the group, yet, while more centralised media hubs where regional journalists work across greater geographic regions has been adopted across the group.

More recently, Trinity Mirror converted its regional titles into ‘digitally-led news publications’ publishing on the Internet first and then shifting the content into the paper late afternoon. Further job cuts followed. Surviving journalists were told to produce live blogs – everything from fascist marches to sporting events to, in one instance, the opening of a branch of KFC, ‘the eighth in the county’. In this model editorial work is first produced online and is then reformatted for the print newspaper later. The Wolverhampton-based Express & Star, the biggest regional newspaper outside London, opened a user-generated content desk to take further contributions from the public.

No news values

Fewer journalists, fewer scoops, fewer hard questions, less topicality and weaker attribution. It all contributes to the drip-drip-dripping away of seriousness and credibility in the regional newspapers of Great Britain. The idea of a criticalrational press so clearly defined by Jurgen Habermas (1991) cannot, surely, be consistent with editorial policy that counts generating click-bait as part of its schedule. And so, we see more listicles, more user-generated content, and more stories without any recognisable news value, whether industrial or academic. Just bait, more and more of it. The local paper scraping like a scavenger for content from the great scrap heap of the Internet and piling it to the old paper as a matter of grim routine.

“The future of local journalism cannot just be built on ‘click-bait’ stories,” wrote Peter Barron, the departing Northern Echo editor early in 2016. “Local newspapers have a vital role to play in society and my parting wish is that they are given the time and support for quality, campaigning journalism that makes a difference to people’s lives.”

But even those who rile against clickbait, call them clickbait skeptics, the protest can prove futile. “We are not afraid of running the odd quirky story while not falling into the clickbait trap loved by many news organisations desperate for someone to read their content,” wrote Lee Marlow, then the current regional features writer of the year in a column for his paper, the Leicester Mercury. “We avoid lists,” he continued, “of the best places to go dogging or running stories about popular TV shows or naked pictures of celebs with no local link.” The column was spiked. Room for such integrity in short supply at the 143-year-old newspaper. Marlow was made redundant shortly after, along with his team. The Mercury, the newspaper that awarded Donald Trelford his first byline, runs a feature desk today with just one journalist instructed to focus on “what’s on style content”.

Ringfence hope

Don’t despair. There is hope, though. Print is flourishing where skillful journalism is ring-fenced and professional work encouraged to a high standard. The Spectator is celebrating an all-time, 188-year circulation high. Its editor, Fraser Nelson attributes the success to “a perfect storm of print and digital”. The Economist has seen its subscriptions rise – subscribers always pay for digital access. Private Eye has reached a 30-year high in circulation. It too restricts content online.

Regional newspapers took another road. Each gave content away in the hope of clicks. Now they hope to subsidise those very clicks by sharing content with the paper and offsetting the cost of production. Newsroom restructures, involving staff layoffs, create further commercial pressures on journalists to produce quick copy on the fly, leading to the promotion of ‘cheap’ listicles and other types of clickbait of the type popular in the Croydon Advertiser.

Incidentally, ‘13 things you’ll know if you are a Southern rail passenger’ wasn’t confined to the Advertiser. It appeared in the East Grinstead Courier (20 miles from Croydon) and in the Surrey Mirror that same week. The story repeated throughout the group wasn’t even original, a very similar article had appeared on the Internet a week earlier, on Cosmopolitan.com, which managed not just 13 things about Southern, but 23. We can, perhaps, expect more lookalike listicles appearing in the regional press as the same bleak certainty that a rail passenger awaits delays.

* Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print? Edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait Abramis Academic Publishing Bury St Edmunds £19.95. January 2017. Available at special pre-publication price of £15 to HoldtheFrontPage readers from Richard@abramis.co.uk.

9 comments

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  • December 14, 2016 at 10:41 am
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    This guy really is clueless – where to start? The fact that he doesn’t understand the definition of clickbait, or that he draws fruitless comparisons between the local press and national niche publications like The Economist and Private Eye? Even a total layman can see that these are completely different products.

    The most irksome part of this is the conclusion he draws, with no evidence whatsoever, that digital journalism and quality journalism are mutually exclusive.

    In the local press, proper journalism is the foundation of all content. In print, that proper journalism has always been packaged with lighter content – pictures, nibs, features, etc. Now, because we have audience data, we know that readers aren’t really interested in that filler stuff – so we’ve replaced it with light-hearted filler stuff that people do actually want to read. And that may include listicles and quirky stories that don’t conform to traditional news values.

    Live blogs are in another category altogether – they allow us to serve our readers in a way that wasn’t even possible in print. We can now tell people the news as it happens. It’s proper journalism in a whole new format.

    So just because we’re doing all this new stuff and re-thinking the way we do old stuff, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to hold the local authorities to account and find proper scoops.

    This “academic” ought to try working in an actual newsroom before he starts making damaging assertions about the state of the industry.

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  • December 14, 2016 at 2:23 pm
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    This article has been doing the rounds for a bit now. Sadly, the author hasn’t sought to correct any of the factual inaccuracies contained within it, some of which are very basic. We can all string together an argument based on a few Google searches, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere.

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  • December 14, 2016 at 3:51 pm
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    Alan Geere’s piece tomorrow will hopefully address that, David.

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  • December 14, 2016 at 4:16 pm
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    “postgraduate leader in Journalism” Hmmmmm. So, knows it all then? But would he last five minutes in a real newsroom? Answers on a postcard to ………….

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  • December 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm
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    Blogs “It’s proper journalism in a whole new format”.
    Not if you consider balance and right to reply to be proper journalism, but that is an old fashioned notion.

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  • December 14, 2016 at 6:14 pm
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    The live blogs that ‘…allow us to serve our readers in a way that wasn’t even possible in print’ – our regional daly has live blogged openings of McDonalds, KFC, and has twice live blogged a rainy day, a reporter standing there with a phone live blogging rain. There is also an independent startup online title on the patch, that has no ‘guess what we mean’ headlines – no Adsense, no pop up ads, no listicles (there are one or two very locally relevant lists),no questionnaires (the lastest tool to gather more demographic) is supported by ad revenue – has a very fast mobile site, has mastered Google and SEO by the look of it, and does live blog, but rarely and only major local events like Parades/Protests etc – and in general provides local information and news that its readers seem to love and talk about all over the area. The regionals are completely out of touch with real people. Good luck to these independents who are covering crime, council, planning, and the usual day to day road closures, traffic news – with a live blog at times – and guess what? They’re planning to print too next year… it’s not a model that can’t work, it’s a model that no-one can see can work.

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  • December 14, 2016 at 7:57 pm
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    I don’t really understand your point there, paperboy. If I provide live updates from the scene of a house fire or car crash, why am I not able to make that balanced or give a right of reply? In fact, most web articles allow instant right of reply, because you can reply in the comments (meta!)

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  • December 15, 2016 at 4:16 pm
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    Live blog is a format, Hawkdown. Choosing to live blog a McDonald’s opening doesn’t sound like the best content, but don’t blame the format for the failings of the content.

    I agree that much of the regional press is out of touch regarding the type of content readers want and need, and some hyperlocal sites seem to have a much better idea. That’s because the regionals are still thinking like print products. They need to adapt if they want to stay relevant.

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  • December 21, 2016 at 4:22 pm
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    Well, much as I hate to disagree with anyone, I’ve worked in local papers on and off for more than 20 years and I agree with every word Mr Dodson’s written, even the ones Mr Higgerson alleges are inaccurate (without further clarification). I call what he’s describing ‘flickbait’, ie. clickbait on paper, but essentially it’s the same old p*ss in a different-shaped bottle, as my old dad used to say.

    In this particular TM office, at least, decent reporters are quitting in droves because they can’t stand being stopped in the street by former readers and told the paper they used to take pride in is now a load of flaccid, vapid crap. Most of those who remain do so only because they have mortgages to pay and no viable alternative to to a job which is eating away their souls. And it’s not even as if it works. Money has been poured into one of our group’s digital offering and its latest digital readership total is way, way down year on year.

    As for his alleged lack of experience, Mr Dodson “has previously worked as a journalist, specialising in the social uses of technology and has contributed to The Guardian, Wired, Design Week, The South China Morning Post and The Sydney Morning Herald”. That’ll do me. Just because he disagrees with the swivel-eyed digital zealots who earn their money kicking holes in the bottom of the boat doesn’t mean he deserved to be trolled.

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