News in the age of clickbait

aaeaaqaaaaaaaak-aaaajdhkzdq4ytvjlwzjnmqtngiwzc05m2nkltg4mgrlzja1yzexzgA few days ago I found myself boasting that I could teach the essence of journalism in half a day. Rash, but there is a grain of truth in it.
It’s all about news. Even features and interviews have a sort of news value, depending on how you define news, which is the tricky bit. You could emphasise relevance, or the uncovering of secrets, or the reversal of expectations: the man who bites the dog is still with us. (Literally so: I have seen such stories several times.)

My favoured definition of news, though, comes from Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when it was a massively successful broadsheet newspaper (on the right). He said simply that “News is anything out of the ordinary”.

That seems to me a useful nostrum in any form of journalism. A printed publication seeks out those unexpected things in its news pages and its features, and it is designed so as to give them due prominence. It is a device for steering readers’ attention and directing them to what the editor considers most important; and that is often the most surprising thing.

How does this relate to the present day, when printed publications are struggling and turning to the internet in hope of salvation? Web newspapers and magazines started out as online replicas of their parent newspapers, with complex layouts designed to lead their readers from point to point in the same way they were led by the print pages. At that time would-be web designers were told to avoid scrolling at all costs.

Now, thanks to smartphones and tablets, everyone scrolls. With a flick of finger or thumb, you rush through story after story until you find something you are interested in. The old idea of steering your attention by story prominence and shape is gone: instead you find your favoured content by picture and headline. And in both cases what you want is Anything Out Of The Ordinary.

Consider “clickbait”, the creation of absurd headlines and eye-catching pictures designed to gather hits, which is to say clicks. Clickbait does a job, and it’s the news ethos boiled down to its essentials. It’s the way online journalism gets readers, in the same way a big headline above the fold, or a familiar face staring into the camera, works for printed newspapers and magazines. It’s only a bad thing if the content at the end of the link is disappointing or dishonest, and sooner or later that will backfire on the clickbait publisher. The same goes for dull material deliberately generated for clickbait purposes, which seems to be the policy of the online operations of some of our local paper publishers.

Here in Gloucestershire, we are regularly regaled with tales of giant chips, discarded McDonalds meals, and police cars driving quickly without arriving anywhere interesting. But we don’t have it all our own way. To close, here’s an example from the website of the Evesham Journal: a tiny
newspaper story given a whole page online and decorated with an irrelevant stock picture of a police car. Follow the link to the page and feel free to jeer: they’ll be delighted. Clickbait at its silliest.