The BBC show that proves ‘clickbait’ isn’t the only stuff readers want

A lot has been written about the importance of audience metrics in newsrooms recently, and the predicted impact of assigning goals every month to individual journalists, something we’re about to start doing in one of the newsrooms I work with in Birmingham.

To be frank, a lot of what has been written has been ill-informed at best, based on the broad brush assumption that in the quest to get more people reading what we do, we have to appeal to what is seen as the lowest common denominator – essentially, regional cat gifs.

For as long as I have been fascinated by journalism, I have seen a very clear snobbery within it, with many journalists pinching their news at ‘popular’ news in favour of more ‘serious’ journalism. In national journalism, this often manifests itself with sneering between editorial departments and a superiority complex towards the popular press from what many call the unpopular press.

In the regional press, that snobbery manifests itself from time-to-time around user generated content, or parish pump material, despite the fact that faces sell papers – something the Derby Telegraph is proud to shout about when it announces over 200 faces in its weekly celebrations platform on a Tuesday.

The myth appears to be that issues which matter don’t sell newspapers, therefore don’t generate audiences online, therefore will be abandoned in the pursuit of ever greater audiences in newsrooms where reporters are expected to have one eye on how well their stories perform.

As I’ve said before, it’s all about the metrics you choose to use, a fact seemingly lost on the pundits who dashed to condemn without checking their facts. Journalists, eh?

But there’s another factor at play here which journalism, especially regional journalism, needs to pay attention to – and that’s this misguided idea that real people won’t do important news.

In the age of print and broadcast bulletins, the packaging up was everything. Serious news could still be imparted inside a newspaper which maybe led on a showbiz story. A double-page investigation could still get a good show but not trouble the front page if it was felt it wouldn’t sell newspapers. How many people read it? We don’t know, but we knew we got it out there – and that was all that mattered.

The digital world, as we know, changed that. Every story now stands or falls by its own merits in a world where the audience plays as much a role – thanks to social media – in determining the reach and popularity of an issue as those publishing it in the first place.

This means you can no longer just park a story on page 15 on the grounds it is ‘dull but important’ and hope people read it. Local, brand-loyal users, those on apps or entering websites directly through the homepage, are already greater in number for many of the brands I work with than the print audience – and they may well see these stories anyway. Surely our goal should be to help these stories travel much further than that, and get them under the noses of the people who don’t realise this is important to them.

But the challenge is to make those stories stand up for themselves, and explain why they are important, and what they mean to people’s lives. Is this doable? I think there is evidence to suggest there this. And that evidence lives on BBC Radio 5 Live.

For a number of months, 5 Live has been broadcasting ‘The Hit List’ – a show tucked away in what feels like the station’s Sunday evening dead zone but which is worth a listen if you want to understand what makes real people tick.

A group of academics create the top 40 of stories based on how popular they have been online, primarily through social media sharing and viewing. For anyone who thinks such an approach means the UK’s most popular news story is a skating cat, it’s time to think again.

I travel a lot on Sunday evenings, and have become a fan of the show, not least because it proves that ordinary people care about important issues too. 

The chart, as I understand it, focuses on stories and issues which spike in any one week, so there has to have been a reaction to a particular thing for it to chart – otherwise I guess it could be led by Manchester United every week. In using that approach, the Hit List rewards stories and events which have captured the imagination.

There can be more light-hearted things in there, of course, including showbiz, celebrity and crowdsourced hashtag trends such as Twitter nostalgia. But in recent weeks, issues such as the Greek debt crisis, 7/7 commemorations, the emergency budget and welfare reform have all made the list.

The start of Ramadan recently made the list too, a useful reminder that it’s not just news as journalists see it which can be news for the wider public too. It’s the news list built by the public’s reaction to each story and issue.

It’s proof, served up weekly, that readers are perfectly capable of appreciating important issues in isolation. But what comes through clearly is that the ability to ensure readers see those stories is an important skills for journalists everywhere.

Assuming clickbait is the only way to attract readers does readers a huge dis-service, as 5 Live is proving every week, and that’s probably the biggest lesson many in journalism have yet to fully appreciate. 

3 comments

  1. Strange that you felt the need to give this post a clickbaity title then.

    Normally I assume that teasing headlines – like ones that don’t mention what show they’re actually talking about – are going to be lead to articles that are tripe. You only got me to read this article because I already know from past experience that you might have something to say that’s worth my attention. i.e. Despite the clickbait headline, not because of it.

    It’s like the old rule of thumb that when the headline asks a sensationalized question (“Is this the cure for cancer?”) the answer is always “No”.

    Unfortunately as everyone across the board takes up those ways of trying to get attention, everything that you come across starts to look like an undifferentiated sea of clickbaity garbage, whether it is or not.

    1. Hi, thanks for taking the time to comment. I guess I define clickbait, like you, as something which doesn’t live up to the headline, and I thought my post did live up to the headline? Has clickbait forced everyone to write headlines differently? Probably…

      1. Firstly let me say that I like your blog, which is why I follow it, and my comments are born out of accumulated frustration with this kind of thing generally and not really to do with you personally or this piece specifically..

        I’m not sure how I’d define clickbait, but not living up to the headline would probably not be the main aspect. But let’s run with that angle for a moment…

        What are you hoping to achieve with a teasing headline that doesn’t tell us what the show is? I’d say you’re looking for a reader reaction of “Hey, what is this remarkable show? I must find out!” Well, when they click through and read the piece if they’re like me they feel a let down and think “Oh, The Hit List? That’s this great thing you were going to bring to my attention? You sidetracked me from my day to tell me about a show I already was aware of, and tell me how that demonstrates what hardly needs demonstrating, namely that for instance the Greek crisis can trend on Twitter sometimes?”

        I’d say writing the headline in a teasing way deliberately sets up the hope of exciting revelations within.So if the content is worthwhile, but not a revelation, the post actually does not live up to the headline. The teaser version gets more clicks precisely because it oversells what’s really on offer.

        Tactics like that probably get more clicks in the short term, but undermine trust and readership in the long run.

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