When we think of clickbait it’s easy to assume it’s the domain of Buzzfeed and less reputable publications that are striving to get your page view so they can earn a bit of advertising revenue. A recent Stanford University study provides an interesting insight into how it’s driving even the more reputable portions of journalism.
The study examines the impact data on not only story popularity but on the various elements that contribute to that popularity, such as the headline, in a number of newsrooms in both the United States and France.
The modern journalist has more data available to them than ever before, giving them unheralded insight into how their readers behave. Not only do they get basic readership numbers for each article, but how long they spent reading it and the referral path to that article.
“Having this quantitative feedback really changes hierarchies between journalists within newsrooms,” the authors say. “Articles that couldn’t be compared before now can be compared using a single metric: clicks. That transforms the internal dynamic of newsrooms.”
Tail wagging the dog?
Whilst ostensibly such statistics are providing vital feedback for writers, they also provide vital data to inform advertising sales that rely on the number, and type, of eyeballs a website attracts. This basic relationship is often founded on attracting the most visits to a site because that is still largely what determines ad revenues.
As the industry became more and more reliant upon ad revenues, the temptation to chase clicks became ever greater, with previously venerable publications upping the number of celebrity stories in favor of those on foreign affairs or the economy.
The study provides one of the more detailed analyses of this new and complex world. The author shadowed a range of journalists and editors for several years at both an American and French publication. The two countries were specifically chosen due to the different approaches taken to the media in each. In America, the market dominates, whilst in France the state takes a greater involvement, which results in a lower dependence upon ad revenue.
Did this change in commercial emphasis make a difference on behavior? Seemingly not, and indeed the research suggests the opposite was actually the case. It was at the French publication that a fixation emerged around clicks. The study suggests this is because page views were associated with the impact of the article in shaping the public debate.
“My findings are paradoxical: You would expect French journalists to be much more anti-clicks compared to American journalists because US journalism is much more market-driven,” the author explains.
That’s not to say that American editors weren’t conscious of their commercial responsibilities, but the journalists at the American publication would push back and try and maintain the integrity of their work. This was despite the software used to measure ‘success’ being identical at both publications.
The results suggest that rather than technology making different cultures converge, it was still possible to maintain unique identities, either within individual publishers or individual cultures.
There is an ongoing debate within the industry about whether page views are even the right metric to track, or whether it’s simply the only metric available. The ideal would surely be to measure quality of experience rather than quantity of visits, especially if the article aims to influence opinions.
That said, it is perhaps also true that clickbait does have a place, especially if it acts as a means for the publication to finance more worthwhile articles. This might result in there being a double newsroom, one of which focuses purely on traffic numbers, whilst the other focuses on high quality, investigative journalism. Indeed, this is a model that we’re already seeing in operation at places like Buzzfeed.
The findings are certainly interesting, but with just two publications monitored it’s a risk to read too much into them. Nevertheless, the study does help shed some light in a changing media landscape.