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Regional press listicles and clickbait ‘killing journalism’ says lecturer

sean-dodsonA journalism lecturer has hit out at the use of listicles in the regional press – claiming it is “killing journalism”.

Sean Dodson, left, postgraduate leader in journalism at Leeds Beckett University, made the criticism in an article which claims the use of listicles and clickbait by local newspapers is contributing to their “falling credibility”.

Sean recalled an issue of the Croydon Advertiser in July which published two stories opposite each other on facing pages, headlined ’13 things you’ll know if you are a Southern rail passenger’ and ‘9 things you didn’t know about Blockbuster’ respectively.

He also cited the Gloucestershire Echo’s story about a discarded bucket of KFC which was left on the ground in Cheltenham, Gloucester daily The Citizen’s 2013 piece about the “biggest chip in Gloucestershire” and the Folkestone Herald’s story about an out-of-date pasty being sold to a young mum.

In the piece, published on The Conversation, Sean wrote: “Discarded fast food and stale pasties are simply not news as generations of reporters have understood it.

“There is widespread academic consensus – a solitary piece of litter or a big chip or a stale pasty does not conform with any of the news values…generally accepted as the gold standard for journalists.

“Can we expect more? You bet. Regionals across the land are using ever more content written by amateurs to fill newspapers left chronically understaffed by rounds of job losses.”

“Fewer journalists, fewer scoops, fewer hard questions, less topicality and weaker attribution. It all contributes to the falling credibility of Britain’s regional papers.

“The idea of a critical or rational press cannot, surely, be consistent with editorial policy that counts generating clickbait as part of its schedule. And so, we see more listicles, more user-generated content and more stories without any recognisable news value.”

“Sadly, given the state of revenues in the news industry, we can expect more lookalike listicles appearing in the regional press as the same bleak certainty that a rail passenger in the south of England awaits delays.”

Sean, who has previously worked for The Guardian and other titles, went on to claim “skilful journalism” was flourishing elsewhere, noting circulation highs for magazines such as The Spectator and Private Eye.

His piece is an edited extract from Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the slow death of print? to be published by Abramis Academic Publishing in January 2017.


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  • October 26, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Couldn`t agree more,its part laziness,part due to lack of real journalists via staff cuts and part due to the ease of access to this kind of meaningless page filler.
    Listicles and “sponsored content” are desperate signs of weak content management and lack of ideas,sadly all too common and on the increase in many regional dailies these days.

    It`s no wonder so few people are buying local papers if this is what theyre expected to pay good money for.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 10:53 am

    I was always taught that news is what is being talked about down the pub – and often, what is being talked about down the pub is the state of our streets, litter, whether a new KFC is opening and other stuff many pompous, old-school journos would dismiss as tittle-tattle or gossip. We might not read it, but the readers do – that’s what matters and always has.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    However, are we not being guilty here of nostalgia for quality regional journalism that hasn’t in reality existed for a long time – if ever? Whilst there are exceptions I have regularly read regionals like the Wolverhampton Express and Star, the Birmingham Post, North Devon Journal, Oxford Mail and Gloucestershire Echo back into the 1970s and can think of little that could be classed as real quality, critical or genuinely investigative journalism in these titles in this time. I remember cosy relationships with the big local players and uncritical coverage of events from their point of view, lazy rewriting of press releases, pages taken up with pictures of cute pet dogs and cats. I share the concern about the decline of local journalism but would call for some perspective on whether it was ever really that good. Most regionals I have encountered have long been bland. The exceptions came when you had a genuinely insightful correspondent such as Terry Grimley the old arts correspondent on the B’ham Post. Beyond that … very little of quality for a long time.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    It’s not just about the stories it’s about the standards. Until relatively recently trainees would get regularly pulled up for apostrophe use and designers would agonise over headlines, photographers would get their ears chewed off for getting a picture with names missing.

    Also, whole teams of commercial writers are now active at papers, a couple of years back you’d get chastised for having too much commercial info in a story as it was free advertising, and editors would not pull a story just because a local business was threatening to withdraw advertising – unthinkable now.

    I know much is said on here and elsewhere about the decline of the press. The net is often blamed, social media, falling revenue etc – no doubt these have all played a part, but for me the reasons are more sinister.

    I genuinely believe there’s been a sustained effort to purge anyone at the top levels who would stand up for journalism against commercial interests and it’s all been about turning these organisations into pure money-making machines. All the ‘characters’ are gone, either forced out or left to preserve their own self respect.

    Seriously, think about anyone you know in the news room now? I guarantee they fall into three categories. The junior who knows no better, the mid-career journo who hopes for the best but expects the worst and is just trying to pay their mortgage, and the top brass – who are pretty much either company men through and through, or just waiting for their payoff so they can finally get that Caravan in Cornwall.

    The modern journalism industry reminds me of the canteen scene in 1984. “Brother, I loved your story about Kim Kardashian’s backside, this is sure to bring us many web hits and – afterall – we are giving the people what they want!” “Yes brother, I couldn’t agree more! Local news is far too confusing and best consigned to the past!’

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  • October 26, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    Jeff Jones clearly isn’t working in a regional press newsroom anymore. I say this because a) he wouldn’t have such negative categories of people if he had to be in one of them and b) he spends so much time on here commenting that there’s no way he’d get away with working in a newsroom.

    Jeff, have you ever thought for one second that some people still work in the regional press because they believe in trying to make a difference, and feel they do still make a difference? It’s all well and good shouting in support of someone who shares your prejudices, but good journalistic thought involves looking at all sides. I’m guessing you’re in PR.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Hilarious comments and just what I’d expect from one of the thousand yard stare brigade. Everybody I know who works in a modern newsroom is dismayed at the state of the industry, how could anyone not be unless they were utterly insane?

    As for spending ‘so much time on here’, about three comments a week?

    I don’t work in full time in the industry because they closed my office and laid off most of my friends, but I freelance regularly for national newspapers and magazines and am an NUJ member, am I allowed to comment now please Mr Bernstein?

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  • October 26, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    As a former Digital Publisher I’d like to point out that I don’t believe listicles and clickbait are even good web content never mind usable in print. This is probably why I’m a former one!

    At its worst it is lazy, cheap, unoriginal and easily produced churnalism (often copied from Reddit or Buzzfeed) that is produced to give a quick and easy way to artificially boost ever increasing targets without any thought of building web communities, and web users increasingly see through these kind of articles for what they are.

    Often it’s mass produced, emailed out to distribution groups, and just copied and pasted throughout entire news groups with just a brief thought for changing the name of a town.

    What newspapers should do is look at what kind of well written and original web and print content their communities want to read that is their USP, but that would take time, money and resources which the groups aren’t willing to do.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    You’re basically saying only the stupid or desperate work in the regional press now Jeff, which is offensive to many of us who believe we are neither of those things. But easy to shout and throw stones and dream about the good old days, rather than try and make a difference.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 7:41 am


    In my experience the industry only pays lip service to becoming an online entity. The top web brass (yourself excepted I’m sure!) are usually staff from elsewhere in the news room who’ve expressed an interest in online.

    I can’t recall a time when I’ve ever seen someone from the newspaper industry touted as an expert speaker on, for example, SEO at a non-news industry dinner or event.

    If the industry had been truly committed to web then about five or so years ago they should have headhunted people from the likes of Google and Facebook and paid them top whack to come up with a strategy.

    What they did instead was haphazardly try and copy the Daily Mail model of sharable ‘content’ and sensationalism.

    If the industry wants to save itself in my opinion it needs to work together and make a solid commitment to quality. They could do worse than following the model of streaming services like Netflix, i.e you pay for the content but that’s because it’s WORTH paying for. This can only work if the industry stands together and each organisation agrees not to undermine each other.

    Say you paid four or five quid a month to get access to the web, video, and writing of a range of top quality publications. People might scoff at that now, but what if you weren’t able to access ANY of them unless you paid up? I think many people would back down, especially the smart phone commuters.

    Anything has got to be better than the current ‘plan’.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 9:14 am

    This is rubbish. The listicle is simply a format, and, as with any format, there are good and bad ways to do it. In some cases, a listicle is simply a different way of presenting a traditional news story – but in a way that is more appealing to the modern digital reader. I would guess that is the case with Sean’s Southern Rail example.

    As for clickbait – I don’t think Sean knows what it means. Clickbait is a scourge, but I’m not aware of any regional publishers who write clickbait. Sean provides no examples here. Clickbait is generally the preserve of bad national titles and unscrupulous digital natives.

    The real reason for the decline in standards of local journalism, are, of course, the lack of funds caused by the collapse of the traditional business model, and the pressures of having to maintain a legacy print business while adapting to a new digital model with fewer staff.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I’ve read a lot of missives like this recently, usually from university employees who no longer work in the industry and still have the “we know what’s best for the reader” attitude towards news which did so much damage to the industry in the first place.

    Producing work that is of interest to people in an engaging and entertaining way is not clickbait, which to my understanding is writing a headline or posting a picture which links to content which fails to deliver.

    Such a shame also that there is such a focus on the halcyon days when journalists broke riveting exclusives every day when actually by doing digital the right way more people are reading “important” local news than ever before – our live blogging of planning meetings in Exeter is a case in point.

    By listening to readers we can clearly make more interesting papers too.

    Sean – you need to get out of the ivory tower and into a modern newsroom – you’d be welcome in the capital of Devon any time.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Bob Dibble? More like Bob Drivel. Although I wouldn’t subscribe to the ‘golden age’ school of thought on regional dailies harking back to the 70s, I have worked on enough of the bigger ones,The Bristol Evening Post, Oxford Mail and Leicester Mercury among them, to totally refute his long rant. These papers were staffed for the most part by talented, credible journalists, with exacting news editors and overseen in some cases by editors who had honed their skills on national newspapers.Always excepting the occasional jaded veteran slumbering in a corner after too many shandies at lunchtime. There was room for hard-hitting investigations alongside the usual fluff which engaged with their thousands of readers.Yes, it’s millions of miles away from the shoddy excuses for papers that are self-immolating even as I write this. And I assure you that this is not a long off view through rose-tinted glasses!

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  • October 27, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Jeff Jones & BobDibble are both right. There always was lazy journalism. In those days, though, it depended on the quality of the leadership – a lazy or timid editor and/or news ed could kill a paper. I have seen a couple of times how a change of editor could galvanize a newsroom & suddenly start producing great papers (and vice versa). Today, though, I think even the greatest editorial team struggles against its commercial pressures.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    HOW quaintly nostalgic that a page from FIVE YEARS ago is used to illustrate a piece on how clickbait is “killing journalism”. Also included in the case for the prosecution are other well-thumbed pieces of evidence that have previously amused the anonymous posters of the mediarati. But what is the truth about clickbait and listicles in the regional press in 2016? This original research may surprise, irritate or even disappoint the doom-mongers of journalism as we knew it.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    The problem is too many experienced editors have been given the bullet to be replaced by kids who couldn’t spot a powerful news story if it kicked them in the head.

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  • October 27, 2016 at 11:45 pm

    Zenithar has hit the nail on the head. The rest is complete nonsense! Digital audiences have told us more about our print audience than we ever previously presumed.

    The number one revenue stream in print was always recruitment. The majority of this has gone online.

    The next was classifieds. Ebay started to take it, Gumtree followed and now Facebook Marketplace is killing it off entirely.

    Third was property. That’s gone to Rightmove or Zoopla and most estate agents have cut back in their local paper with the majority only advertising because the others do. It won’t be long before they all pull out. Motors was always another popular one but who doesn’t use Autotrader or direct used car dealership websites?

    So, what are we left with? News, ents and sport – and there is no way that advertising in those alone could ever sustain the newsrooms of the last 20 years.

    All the arguing over apostrophes, headlines etc was an enormous waste of time. The occasional ‘powerful’ front page does nothing to stem the terminal decline of print because the biggest changes have been caused by changing consumer habits.

    The online model regional publishers use is based upon generating page views for national or regional brands and, despite the arguments around what qualifies as ‘listicles’ or ‘clickbait’, it’s the only growing revenue stream they have.

    The bottom line is that, in the last 20 years, few people have ever bought local newspapers for the news no matter how worthy or high-quality we, as journalists, believed it to be. The digital stats back up what the majority of ignored Jicreg reports have been telling us for years. You only have to look at the stats for stories like ‘Gloucestershire’s biggest chip’ and the ‘out-of-date pasty’ to make you realise how many past light-hearted tales have been dismissed in print because of our professional snobbery around ‘worthiness’.

    Getting rid of ‘experienced’ editors and replacing them with kids might be the best tactic. First, in terms of salaries and, second, for experimenting with story ideas which may have previously been dismissed as ‘poor quality’.

    Ultimately, we are heading towards a new baseline that will determine how many editorial staff can be sustained by a prominently digital advertising model. It’s going to continue to be an awful process and, in my opinion, it’ll be much worse than it needs to be due to the expected profit margins of regional publishers.

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  • October 28, 2016 at 9:28 am

    Sorry Oliver I have to disagree on a couple of points,

    “Digital audiences have told us more about our print audience than we ever previously presumed.”

    Digital audiences tell you about Digital Audiences – a good web only story isn’t always a good print story – in some of the papers I worked on if you followed the digital trends in print, all you’d ever publish would be football, weather and celebrity stories and you’d give up on the news!

    It would be interesting though if someone could back up what you have said if they have printed a web story that has been proved to increase circulation.

    following on from that,

    You only have to look at the stats for stories like ‘Gloucestershire’s biggest chip’ and the ‘out-of-date pasty’ to make you realise how many past light-hearted tales have been dismissed in print because of our professional snobbery around ‘worthiness’.

    How many people do you think are clicking on these stories from Facebook sites like ‘angry people in newspapers’ – they are not laughing with you – they are laughing at you. They are seeing how low the newspaper industry are prepared to go. How many of these visitors are the target local audience?

    I suppose at the end of the day, for web traffic and advertisement purposes it doesn’t actually matter why a person clicks on a story or where they come from – or if they come back – as long as the stats are consistently high – which I think goes back to Sean’s original point – it is about the damage to reputation being caused by posting low quality or jokey articles to bring the hits in.

    If the industry uses too many of these stories a lot of publications will end up like a Viz comic. Maybe I’m old fashioned and po-faced but I like my newspapers to serve up local news and not become part of the web singularity that is serving up tosh and trivia on a daily basis.

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  • October 28, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Don’t always agree with your reasoning, or your arguments, Oliver, but that last paragraph is spot on.

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  • October 28, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Five things editors do not know about listicles.

    1.They are patronising rubbish that annoy readers and “viewers” intensely.
    2..They are patronising rubbish that annoy readers and “viewers” intensely.
    3.They are patronising rubbish that annoy readers and “viewers” intensely.
    4.They are patronising rubbish that annoy readers and “viewers” intensely.
    15.They are patronising rubbish that annoy readers and “viewers” intensely.

    Get the message?

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  • October 29, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    webmonkey, your point about football, weather and celebrities shows exactly what I mean. Not only do the majority of people not buy local newspapers for news, they don’t visit local news websites for it either!

    In my opinion, the current online business model of regional publishers is bad for local business as it relies on cumulative page views for national firms to raise their brand profile, rather than generating any useful customers at a local level. This will have a permanent impact on the bottom line locally as more businesses discover that the value for money from print is getting poorer and they can target their audiences more effectively with a Facebook page than they can by advertising on local news websites. However, I get why the regionals are going about it in this way. It’s making money!

    As for readers laughing at you instead of with you, I’ve had this discussion before and it’s simply not true. You get the regular moaners and groaners online, but people don’t consume these articles in the same way. I agree that the majority of them shouldn’t probably appear in the paper but that’s because people pay a quid to sit down and read whichever bits interest them.

    Their ritual might mean that they engage once a day, twice a week, once a fortnight or whatever but for a prolonged period, say 20 minutes at a time. That’s a substantial amount of engagement.

    Online, it’s very different picture. According the the last ComScore data I read, the average unique user engages with online local news for less than ten minutes a month! Most importantly, when they find an article that interests them they may check out the same content on multiple local websites as it’s so quick and easy to do. As I’ve said before, this means that advertisers are wasting their time across paying for ads across multiple titles as they’re reaching the same audience.

    Why is all this important? Well, it means that unique content about ‘big chips’ and ‘old pasties’ gets people talking and sharing for whatever reason and that makes it more likely to appear in local Facebook timelines, aka relevant audiences. As Facebook and Google are the most prominent source of referrals to newspaper websites, that means these stories can be useful for local audiences.

    The problem, as I’ve explained, is that the regional publishers can make more money out of selling £25,000 advertising packages to national brands than they can out of lots of £500 adverts to local businesses.

    The local online audience is bigger than print ever has been but the money in it may only be enough to keep smaller, independent publishers in business.

    Mark my words, before very long, a local news start-up will launch without a paper or a website. As Facebook continues to develop its integrations with third-party software for bookings, payments etc someone will find a way to launch with nothing more than a Facebook page, using Instant Articles to either sell adverts themselves or for a cut of relevant adverts provided by Facebook. No expensive websites to maintain, fewer staff and a very lean local business model with listicles, daft chip stories and ‘clickbait’ as part of its core offering alongside traditional local news.

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