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The clickbait debate – myths and realities. By Alan Geere

This week HoldtheFrontPage has been serialising chapters in a major new book about the future of journalism entitled Last Words? How Can Journalism Survive the Decline of Print?

In yesterday’s extract, journalism lecturer Sean Dodson argued that the phenomenon of online ‘listicles’ and ‘clickbait’ is doing nothing to help the cause of the regional press.

Today it’s over to former Essex Chronicle editor Alan Geere, who surveyed a number of local and regional titles alleged to have succumbed to the clickbait curse.

His conclusion?  That the impact of clickbait has, if anything, been exaggerated – and that the regional newspaper websites should be making more use of the digital tools now at their disposal.


Alan GeereDeparting Northern Echo editor Peter Barron warned the future of local journalism cannot be built on ‘clickbait’. A spiked column by a star writer on the Leicester Mercury railed against ‘risible’ standard of clickbait online journalism. An online journalists’ survey revealed: ‘Public will soon live off attention-seeking, fact-free, gossipy clickbait’.

Once we had comment. Now we have clickbait.

What is clickbait?

The academic community is surprisingly united in its definition of clickbait and its desired effects. “Clickbaits are articles with misleading titles, exaggerating the content on the landing page. Their goal is to entice users to click on the title in order to monetise the landing page. The content on the landing page is usually of low quality,” say Biyani, Tsioutsiouliklis and Blackmer (2016) in their research paper ‘Eight Amazing Secrets for Getting More Clicks: Detecting Clickbaits in News Streams Using Article Informality’.

Similarly Chen, Conroy and Rubin (2015) assert: “Clickbait refers to content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page and has been implicated in the rapid spread of rumour and misinformation online.”

Chakraborty et al (2016) maintain clickbait exploits the cognitive phenomenon known as ‘curiosity gap’. “Headlines provide forward referencing cues to generate enough curiosity among the readers such that they become compelled to click on the link to fill the knowledge gap.”

What are they saying?

Peter Barron left the Northern Echo after 17 years as editor with a valedictory editorial. In it he reflected on his successes but cautioned readers as follows: “The future of local journalism cannot just be built on ‘click-bait’ – stories which attract the biggest number of hits online. “There will be those who call me a dinosaur but if I see another ‘stomachchurning compilation of the best spot-squeezing videos’ on a ‘news’ website, I may well take a hammer to my computer. Exploding spots may get lots of hits, and that may attract digital advertising revenue, but it isn’t news.”

In the Midlands, Lee Marlow, the writer behind the hard-hitting Fred Leicester column, also wrote a piece when he was made redundant, but the editor at the Leicester Mercury chose not to run it. Edited highlights of that column included: “We have a website which is updated all day, every day, constantly. Yet it’s a website festooned with so many ads that you try to access it on your phone and it’s barely readable. And on that website there will be not just all of the news from the paper, but other ‘news’, too. Stories about Apple iPhone batteries. Product recalls. Some stuff about how people are comparing Leicester City to Donald Trump. (No, really. Apparently, they are.) This is ‘internet only’ news. Clickbait. You may have heard of it. It doesn’t have a good reputation and its reputation is deserved, if you’re asking me. But you can also see how these stories have been shared. This one had been shared more than 8,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. Click, click, click, click. In this brave new world of digital journalism, this is what counts. The click is always King. It doesn’t matter that your readers are laughing at you when they click. It just matters that they click.”

In South London, reporter Gareth Davies took to Twitter after accepting his redundancy cheque from the Croydon Advertiser to bemoan the direction his old paper was going. “A paper with a proud 147-year history reduced to being a thrown together collection of clickbait written for the web,” he tweeted. He added: “What do readers get? A website focused on live blogging everything, with reporters told to ‘write like they speak down the pub’. Well, it breaks my heart. I couldn’t stick around to watch the paper be destroyed & I would not help them do it.”

The new numbers

Online audience, not unsurprisingly, continues to grow while print sales fall. The latest figures for daily average unique browsers in regional publications (Jan-June 2016) show Newsquest with the biggest group-wide jump over the six months to the end of June, with a 24 per cent rise year-on-year to 1.575m daily uniques, 23 per cent up on the last half of 2015.

Johnston Press was up by 22 per cent year-on-year while Trinity Mirror, which boasted the biggest number of daily uniques at 2.471m, was up 19 per cent year-on-year. The Local World Network, owned by Trinity Mirror, was up 13 per cent year-on-year to 1.393m daily uniques.

The research

For the purposes of this chapter we returned to scene of the crimes above to examine the websites and determine just what sort of job they are doing. They are by definition a snapshot and concentrate on the ‘splash’ page or opening page of the site where by definition any clickbait would reside. Each site was monitored for quantity and quality with a verdict delivered at the end.

The Northern Echo

Publisher: Newsquest
Website: http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/
Accessed Friday September 9 2016 at 09.12

Opening page has 25 news stories, four videos, 20 in the Most Popular
column.
Sport – 17 stories
National sport – four stories
Four ‘others’ inc the infamous Headline Challenge started by Peter Barron, who lives on in its blurb
Ents (that’s what it’s called) – seven stories
Echo memories – seven
Business news – seven
Trending across the UK – seven stories from other Newsquest titles
National news – seven, although the most recent was nine hours ago
Most popular (again) – top 18

Social media: Twitter: 41.4k followers, 29.6k tweets, Followers Per Tweet (FPT) ratio 1.4
Very handy Twitter directory of all staff, plus their number of followers,
including the ex-editor Peter Barron leading the way with 13.9k followers.
The current editor Andy Richardson is still listed as Business Editor with 0
followers, probably because the Twitter name given @bizecho links to a baby
supply store in Indonesia.
23k Facebook likes
Verdict: Lots to look at and lots to read, a la DailyMail.co.uk, with a big
landing page that takes quite a bit of scrolling through.
Clickbait score 0/10

Leicester Mercury

Publisher: Trinity Mirror/Local World
Website: http://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/
Accessed on Friday September 9 2016 at 09.50

The top of the opening page has three stories, which are not labelled, one Latest News and two Editor’s Choices.
The lead is a timeline of a fatal crash on the MI, which happened that morning, lively updates with pix and maps.
Sport – seven stories (all Leicester City)
News – seven stories
Entertainments: Features – seven, events – five

Social media: Twitter: 72.7k followers from 75.3k tweets with a FPT ratio of 1.03
Facebook: 45k likes (although link takes away from website)

In common with all Trinity Mirror/Local World sites readers have to ‘answer a survey question to continue reading this content’. However, the advice on getting around the survey is neatly provided by the paper on its Facebook page.

Verdict: Practical, purposeful and if anything, a little understated. Plenty going on, but nothing that jumps out at you. The ads are there but aren’t intrusive.

Clickbait rating 0/10

Croydon Advertiser

Publisher: Trinity Mirror/Local World
Website: http://www.croydonadvertiser.co.uk/
Accessed Friday September 9, 2016 at 08.40

Splash page has three stories plus another headlined Worth The Money? The lead is a court story with picture taken by reporter
Sport – seven stories, all Crystal Palace
Editor’s Picks – two
More news – six local stories inc ‘The insane giant milkshakes you can now buy in Croydon’ with one comment, which was spam.
Most read – five stories (three Crystal Palace)
What’s On – seven features, five events
‘9 things you’ll know if you were a regular at London nightclub Fabric’ was more than 1,200 lovingly crafted words written by a staff member and actually deserved better than the lame listicle headline. Not local though.

Social media: Twitter: 11.8k followers. 15.7k tweets FPT ratio .75
Facebook 19k likes

Verdict: Plenty to read, well written and from a visit later in the day updated regularly. Sponsored content (Staples back to school), some ads but nothing obtrusive.

Clickbait score: 1/10 just for that ‘9 things’ headline

In the interests of fairness, we also looked at titles from the other two big groups, Johnston Press and Archant – this time selected at random from a numbered list using random.org number generator.

Norwich Evening News

Publisher: Archant
Website: http://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/home
Accessed Tuesday September 6 2016, 12.34

Under ‘Latest’ 10 items – crime, news, views, education, motoring, all time-stamped
Mustard tv promo
‘More’ – five items, one sport
Photo galleries – six items
More ‘more’
Most read – top five
Revealed: The number of parents fined at every Norfolk school for taking children out of class was a super FOI story with comments, facts and figs

Social media, reached by big, bold links not the usual tiny symbols
Twitter: 39.7k followers, 59.6k tweets FPT ratio .66
Facebook: 13k likes

Verdict: Bright, accessible page. Interesting to see sport mixed in with other content, although readers can click through to a dedicated page.

Clickbait score: 0/10

Northamptonshire Telegraph

Publisher: Johnston Press
Website: http://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/
Accessed Tuesday September 6 2016 at 14.36

Hot Topics – seven items
Followed by Sky promotion and ‘Supermarket price war’ credited to Offbeat
Sport – eight stories
What’s on – three stories
Essential daily briefing from inews – five stories which open in new window
Lifestyle three stories (two local)
Trending now nine stories (all local)
Promoted stories (nine) ‘Promoted link by Taboola’

Social media: Twitter: 12.1k followers, 39.2k tweets FPT ratio .31
Facebook 25k likes

Verdict: Register to leave a comment clearly is a put-off with just four comments on whole of news page. A neat story on organ donation surrounded by ‘sponsored links’. Felt far more commercial than the other sites looked at.

Clickbait score: 2/10

So, where are we with clickbait and the regional press? As this research shows claims for the pervasive influence of clickbait appear to be exaggerated. All the sites visited showed an honest commitment to providing local news, sport, information, comment and entertainment to the highest standard.

If anything, they were somewhat prosaic, lacking the, er, buzz of buzzfeed.com, the sheer breadth and depth of dailymail.co.uk or the clickbait heaven (or hell) of cosmopolitan.co.uk.

Perhaps because of the eternal ‘time constraints’ or the effect of job cuts throughout the industry, engagement with the audience via website interactivity or through social media was low. Maybe it’s time for the regional press to get off its high horse and start to realise the full potential of the ‘new media’ at its disposal.

* 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

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  • December 15, 2016 at 10:11 am
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    Interesting research, a good read and the approach is more akin to a feature than an essay. However, no matter how interesting it is to be told there are no clickbait stories on the home pages of the carefully selected websites, it’s like saying there are no nibs on the front pages of their print editions. Click on any story on any website and you’ll find plenty of clickbait stories. Verdict: too superficial to stand up to scrutiny.

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