It’s quite common to hear people denounce the work my colleagues do as ‘clickbait.’ Too common, in fact.
The sensible option, some would argue, would be to ignore it. After all, the facts tell a different story. And I’m going to give sharing the facts another go.
Why? Two reasons.
The first is that what started off as an unfounded criticism by those who disagreed with the approach to growing digital audience the company I’m digital publishing director at, Trinity Mirror, had decided to take appears to have become a received wisdom.
Take, for example, a sentence in a blog post written by an academic called Dan Evans on the OpenDemocracy blog. Having read the blog several times, I’m still not sure of the point it’s trying to make, but this sentence stood out:
Wales three ‘major’ papers – The Western Mail, South Wales Echo (both South Wales) and Daily Post (North Wales) are owned by Trinity Mirror, a chief player in the reduction of journalism to listicles and clickbait. As a consequence, their content has become increasingly trivial and unconcerned with Welsh politics or culture.
No backing up the statement. Just stating it as fact. A fact which crumbles when real evidence about volumes of stories, styles of stories and themes of stories is offered. But those who peddle the clickbait myth rarely want to discuss the facts.
And increasingly, we have journalists picking up on one-off stories and claiming they are the norm for the titles I work with. Press Gazette gives them air time, presumably because it drives audience online and so the wisdom goes on. This is the second reason.
But perhaps the most misleading to date comes from Graham Smith, a former Trinity Mirror journalist in Cornwall who is crowdfunding CornwallReports, which carries the slogan ‘No adverts, no click-bait, just journalism.’ You can see where this is going, I’m sure.
He pledges on his crowdfunding page to ‘restore the primacy of accurate, factual local news reporting – vital to the fabric of our democracy.’ Yet then seeks to paint a very inaccurate picture of the work done by fellow journalists.
In his publicity video he uses a series of screenshots from the titles I work with in that part of the world to suggest we’re giving up on journalism, dumbing down and letting down local democracy.
In an interview with Press Gazette, he said:
“The difference between my site and Cornwall Live will be like the difference between the Daily Star and The Guardian. It is for people who are interested in what’s going on and not interested in who are the 50 sexiest people in Cornwall.”
It’s dead easy to pick one story you don’t like and pretend it’s the norm. Academics do it all the time. Smith has found a handful he doesn’t like and worked very hard to suggest that’s the norm, being written at the expense of all else.
But lets try and deal with facts. What is this awful website which Cornwall has been landed with from Trinity Mirror? Well, here’s the front page tonight:
Doesn’t look very clickbaity to me. But maybe Smith, like many others, has fallen into the trap of assuming the stuff which tends to be most popular is actually representative of everything we do. That stuff tends to be the popular stuff on social media, so here are the most shared stories over the past few weeks on CornwallLive:
All seem like good, solid local news which is being shared by people because they find it relevant to their lives. Even the much-discussed Sexy List is just a bit of fun, and getting a response too.
Looking at the site’s most read list for December, it’s got crime on it, Christmas events for surfers, the airport story, the location of mobile speed cameras, flood warnings, a man found at sea, dead mackerel washing up on a beach, the M5 being closed, a gig announcement for the Eden Project, and several community campaigns.
There are council stories in there. Health stories in there. Issues, campaigns, human interest – but all prepared in a way which makes people want to read them online. Seeking to write stuff which is going to be read is not something journalists should sneer at, surely.
Journalists who lob rocks at stories which don’t pass their own personal ‘call this journalism’ test will often hide behind the excuse ‘we’re not having a go at the reporters, just the company.’ Well here’s a thing – when something you’ve written gets criticised, it hurts.
Smith told Press Gazette:
Smith said: “Had I been allowed to continue reporting the news, I would not have pursued the idea of launching my own website”.
What’s the story?
I’m responsible (along with others) for the digital content strategy at Trinity Mirror’s regional titles, and it’s a strategy which is quite simple.
We believe that the future success of regional media relies on us building a loyal, primarily local, audience. We need to respect that audience and learn what it is they would find useful from us. We build that relationship not by shouting ‘we do news’ but by being useful to many parts of their lives.
We inform them when the roads are busy, we suggest great places to eat at the weekend, and we share a smile with them. We listen to them through audience data and real-life conversations. And we build a relationship with them which means they respect us when we tell them that we have something we think they should pay attention to.
In recent weeks, several of the newsrooms I work with have written incredible articles about homelessness. That’s not a subject people would necessarily be looking to read up on on a Thursday, but thanks to the relationship titles such as the Plymouth Herald, Birmingham Mail, Liverpool Echo and others have built with readers, when they said to those readers that they had something important to talk about, they stopped and listened. And it became agenda-setting news.
Aiding our critics
In some cities and towns I know, local political leaders unhappy at our coverage seek to do down our work by saying we’re just clickbait now.
Yet many of the titles I work with have greater influence and clout than at any point in the last 30 years because readers respond to what we’re saying and things happen as a result.
Call it clickbait if you want (and it’s not), but by attempting to appeal to people in lots of ways, in a way which makes them want to come back (clickbait fails there) we’ve become part of the lives of many more people.
And that allows us to carry out what many see as the journalistic mission. The popular content – designed to engage, catch the eye and satisfy the reader – helps fund the content which takes longer to produce, but which can have just as much impact on the lives of readers as the stuff readers know they need.
Local journalism faces a challenging time. Journalists hurling insults about the quality of work undertaken by their professional colleagues and seeking to undermine it to others in their communities seems be a unnecessary pursuit when so make other things need solving and resolving.
There are sensible debates to be had about journalism. Needed for journalism’s future – this isn’t going to be one that helps.
I hope Graham Smith’s new website works, and that a new journalism revenue model is proven. I’m sure it stands far more chance of success if it’s promoted on its strengths, rather than the inaccurate portrayal of what hard-working journalists at a rapidly-growing website down the road are up to.
Lets try and build a discussion about journalism based on facts – something we surely can all agree on.