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Why Clickbait Will Save Journalism

Earlier in the week, Jeffrey Dvorkin wrote an article for NPR’s blog called “Why click-bait will be the death of journalism”. (For someone who clearly yearns for the good ol’ days of daily bugles and newsreels, you’d think Dvorkin would be more particular about his headline casing, but whatever.)

I’ll sum up his points here, because click-throughs are obnoxious. Newspapers are losing readers, and are shutting down and forming conglomerates. He blames technology for this, saying that while “digital culture” has “enlarged our informational possibilities,” it’s also “driving journalistic deviance downward.” Clearly, no one told him that people prefer texts written at a lower reading level, but I think what he means that while there’s more journalism being produced, more of it is crap. That’s fair. I could probably argue that the ratio of crap to solid journalism is the same, but honestly, numerical analysis is above what I’m aiming for with this thinkpiece (read: rant.)

Dvorkin says that journalism is being “Uber-ized”; that freelancers and bloggers are being hired to replace experienced, older journalists. He highlights that many news organizations have cut their more expensive departments, focusing on cheap and easily produced content like WTC (weather, traffic, crime) or, yes, clickbait.

This is where he starts to step on his own toes a bit. After saying that journalism is dying, he mentions that Buzzfeed, Vice, and Vox are able to put the pressure on “legacy media” and have been securing larger and larger profits. But, wait… don’t Buzzfeed, Vice, and Vox all have their own news departments? Vice, in fact, has a massive international reporting department, which has been the first to break a wide variety of stories from places the Associated Press dare not tread.

It’s maybe Dvorkin’s last paragraph that is so damning to his message. “One of the best qualities in the journalistic culture is skepticism. But when it comes to digital, skepticism has been replaced with unquestioning enthusiasm. And the information-starved public is being left behind.”

Huh? Information-starved? But he said himself that “digital culture… has enlarged our informational possibilities.” Which is it?

It frankly seems like Dvorkin keeps confusing what he briefly acknowledges as “legacy media” with journalism as an industry. Cars replacing carriages didn’t “kill” transportation — it simply killed legacy transportation. It seems like a touch of No True Scotsman: only dying forms of journalism count as real journalism.

So, in short, Dvorkin is saying that clickbait means there’s more information, but also less information, and greater profits but also lower profits. Interesting. And clearly some nonsense.

By this point you’re probably thinking, wow, this post itself is some worthless clickbait. I asked a question and then, instead, spent five hundred words criticizing someone else for getting the answer wrong. Sorry. But hey, don’t leave yet: Clickbait will save journalism.

Way back when, in the era of newsreels, society seemed generally of the opinion that news should be unbiased. Then, as the news transitioned from being essentially a laundry list broadcast by the state to something provided by commercial enterprise, bias became an integral part of it. Journalists, after all, are going to sell what they think people want. (Which is why journalists sell lists of 10 cute dogs, today.)

Over the last century, this became increasingly awkward. The news became more and more biased as competition pushed them to sell a better product. We saw some deviance from this during the 50s, when sports, comics, and WTC sections became a prominent part of newspapers. These sections, which Dvorkin would probably equate to today’s listicles, helped draw in audiences and, in turn, helped finance the more expensive but less lucrative parts of the business.

Today isn’t fundamentally different. Buzzfeed rakes in major bucks from the ads on their clickbait, and then uses that to finance Buzzfeed News. The outlet I write for, significantly smaller, will run a dozen celebrity bios, or talk about what happens to the businesses that go on Shark Tank, to finance more in-depth pieces, such as my series which helped bring new info about Teresa Halbach’s murder to light.

And this is fantastic for consumers. It means that journalists and their editors aren’t trying to make legitimate news profitable. We’ve got other means to bring in the cash, like interviews with people who create dank memes (Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer)1 or highlighting floundering child stars. This leaves journalists free to tell the news as it really happened, without trying to work in sensationalism.

Contary to what Dvorkin seems to believe, clickbait is helping restore journalistic integrity. Does this mean “legacy media,” which relies on marketable subjectivity to sell what should be objective information, is going to die? Yes. But that’s what should happen — they are the problem with journalism, with their inability to repeat a presidential address without biased analysis for the sake of sales. Not cute pictures of dogs.


  1. There used to be a link to an interview I did with one of the people who popularized the Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer meme, but it has been lost to time. [return]

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