When you look at the dictionary definition of clickbait, critics of popular content suddenly look like journalistic snobs

Not so many years ago, the worst slur a journalist could hit another journalist with, particularly in regional newspapers, was the accusation of being ‘too tabloid.’

These days, it’s to lob the claim that you’re writing ‘clickbait.’ Both insults have the same message: It’s not *real* journalism, it’s not what we’re here to do. It’s not what the public expect of us. And writing content which proves to be popular is not what we’re here for.

The problem with the clickbait challenge is that it means many things to many people. I’ve heard the clickbait accusation a lot since we first talked about audience goals for reporters at Trinity Mirror, where I’m digital publishing director for our regional titles.

Most of the people lobbing the word clickbait around are people who haven’t taken the time or trouble to understand what we’re actually doing. But one thing is very clear: Most people define clickbait differently, with only a notion of negativity links their definitions.

My definition of clickbait is a negative one: It’s content where the headline doesn’t reflect the content. Content which is destined to disappoint.

The Oxford dictionary, however, is more upbeat:

(On the Internet) content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page:

And here’s an alternative definition, from the Urban Dictionary:

The headlines are designed to cause maximum provocation or interest, but as a result are frequently extremely exaggerated or flat out lies, and the articles themselves are often just as shoddy.

I think the Urban Dictionary reflects the generally-accepted attitude towards clickbait.

Most journalists would shudder at the suggestion  their work fell into the second category, but most journalists would acknowledge the art of over-writing a headline and top-spinning an intro to attract reader interest is hardly new to the internet. Many of the academics who pinch their noses at talk of listicles, informational content and – horror of horrors – actually responding to what readers are reading will have worked in newsrooms where stories were hyped up to sell newspapers. They just call it clickbait because it’s on the internet.

When I look at the Oxford definition, I struggle to wonder what the problem with clickbait is. What’s wrong with encouraging visitors to click on a link to visit a web page? Recent examples where people – such as the commenting community on Holdthefrontpage – have wailed ‘clickbait’ include Local World titles publishing articles asking: “When is the FA Cup Final on TV?”

If I’m in Hull, and do that search, and the Hull Daily Mail comes up, and it answers my question, what harm exactly has been done to the Hull Daily Mail’s brand in the mind of that user? And how different is it to the ‘sport on TV’ boxes most newspapers still publish?

Likewise, the skirmish last week between two newspapers in Kent over ‘clickbait’ because one had run stories about naked celebrity photos being leaked struck me as rather overblown. One editor described it as ‘desperate’ tactics. Another way of looking at it would be to ask if that story would have made the national news page of a regional daily? I suspect the answer is yes – and in the digital age, weekly brands compete with their daily counterparts on equal digital footings. It’s worth remembering that a local reader is also a national news consumer, and if they happen to find a story on their local news website, is that really damaging?

This weekend, as Trinity Mirror published its monthly ABCe figures the usual accusations flew in the comments box about the audience growth coming from the wrong sort of stories – stories designed only to make people click. This article on WalesOnline – secrets from bar staff on how to get served more quickly – and one comparing Celebrations to Heroes (as in the chocolates) were both singled out

Yet visit the WalesOnline Facebook page and you find people debating the points made. Yes, both articles are light-hearted, but since when did local news brands only do the serious and the dull?

The elephant in the room – or rather, the elephant the critics hope is there – is that popular content is replacing the bread and butter content which makes local news brands so unique. I don’t see that happening, not least because the bread and butter stuff is the content which generally drives higher engagement scores, when it’s produced in a way which listens to readers.

But here’s the rub: Articles written to perform well in search and social, and which are popular and well-shared, enhance the profile of brands like WalesOnline in search engines and social networks which run algorithms to second-guess what a user might want. 

So when WalesOnline then shares something which the clickbait snobs would approve of as good, solid local journalism, there’s a much greater chance more people will see it because those same algorithms know WalesOnline produces content people want to read.

If the standard definition of clickbait – and by standard, I mean dictionary definition – is content written because journalists want to be read, then clickbait isn’t the bad thing many like to believe it is.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that clickbait is content which disappoints the user when they click on it. Brands indulging in that only damage themselves. They pick up a unique browser, and a page view, but probably send their bounce rates sky high in the process.

And when their brand appears before the disappointed browser on Twitter, Facebook or in search again, the odds are they won’t click.

That’s not a new challenge to journalism. Nor is the snobbery around popular content. But the snobbery around wishing to amuse and entertain readers as well as informing is remarkably dangerous if taken too seriously.

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