Junk information and ‘food banks for news’
When their existence relies on eyeballs seeing ads, publishers will use whatever easy route they can to boost the number of people clicking on their articles. The results aren’t always particularly pleasant. I mean, there’s a reason why the word 'clickbait’ isn’t a compliment.
As traffic from Facebook declines, some publishers are increasing their focus on an old trick – juicing Google searches for clicks by writing as many articles as possible about news stories that people are searching for.
It works. Some newsrooms race to write up fluff pieces about a new Google Doodle
as they know the best-performing articles will show up at the top whenever someone clicks that Doodle. For winners of the algorithm lottery, it’s a traffic goldmine.
But as Bijan Stephen on The Verge explains
, take the approach too far and the results can be grim. Newsweek’s website took advantage of two celebrities’ suicides last week to write articles with titles like 'Who Is Anthony Bourdain’s Ex-Wife Ottavia Busia? Chef Dead At 61’ – hardly respectful to the loss of a much-loved public figure.
Crappy clickbait is nothing new, but as access to information becomes ever easier, and the number of outlets ever larger, the desperation of publications without other means of monetisation becomes ever greater. The Newsweek case perfectly exemplifies that desperation.
One reason I don’t work full-time for a publication anymore (I used to be a tech editor) is that information, and even insight, are increasingly commoditised. If you can’t convince people to directly pay for your product, life becomes a constant game of chasing the latest traffic-driving tactics.
And as I wrote yesterday
, even if you can convince people to pay, you open up a bunch of other problems.
That’s before we consider that paywalls restrict quality information to those wealthy enough to afford it. Junk food is cheap, easy, and low in nutritional value, and junk information from sites like Newsweek is the same.
It feels like we might get to the point where we need the news equivalent of food banks
. Imagine charities giving quality information to those who can’t otherwise afford it. It sounds absurd, but the economics of news might mean that’s what we end up with.