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Feb. 10, 2014, 10:48 a.m.
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4 Headlines that Will Restore Your Flagging Faith in Journalism

Or at least explain what Upworthy means for the future of online content.

nieman-reports-winter-2014-coverEditor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and ready for you to read.

Lots of great stuff in there as usual; the main theme of the issue is the state of journalism in China, with a number of terrific reports both from Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents posted there.

In addition to the China package and other good stuff, I’m now writing a column for the print edition of the magazine. Here’s my first one.

A Kid Came Up To Her In The Hall And Told Her She Saved His Life. He Wasn’t The Only One In Tears.

Having A Bad Day? Here Are 46 Powerful Things You Should Really Hear.

A Firefighter Went To Put Out A Fire, But He Had No Idea He Would Be A Hero Of A Different Kind.

Clear Your Next 10 Minutes Because This Video Could Change How Happy You Are With Your Entire Week.

Those are all recent headlines on Upworthy, a website that launched in early 2012 and, in less than two years, was generating an astonishing 88 million unique visitors a month. (NYTimes.com gets about 30 million.) If you spend any time on Facebook, it’s likely you’ve come across at least a few Upworthy stories, shared by friends who found them inspiring, infuriating, or otherwise irresistible. Put 10 of them in a row and chances are you’ll find it hard to click just one.

For those of us who’ve written a lot of headlines, Upworthy’s stand out for a number of reasons, but chief among them is their comfort with emotion. These headlines aren’t afraid to tell you how you’re going to feel about clicking them. The sentiments they inspire are part of the sales job in a way that wasn’t the case in traditional media.

It’s not that journalism pre-Internet was unfamiliar with the power of emotion to reach audiences — or unafraid to use it. Tabloids were and remain the print exemplar here, with their lurid tales, clear good guys and bad guys, damsels in distress, and easy-to-hate pols. Television news has long known the value of a rescued dog story. And even the stodgiest of broadsheets trafficked in feel-good features and anger-driving columns.

But Upworthy — and BuzzFeed, Quartz, NowThis News, and other web-native outlets that one could (loosely) lump together as viral-friendly media — are different. And the prime driver of that difference is a major shift in how readers find content online.

Online news organizations spent the 2000s focusing a lot of energy on search engine optimization — tailoring their content to the needs of Google. Many outlets found that a third to a half of their readers were coming from Google searches, and there was no shortage of consultants promising to boost your stories to the top of those rankings. That led to a lot of journalists sitting through boring SEO training and a lot of keyword-clotted headlines aimed at capturing any stray “I’m Feeling Lucky” it could.

But SEO turned out to be a game that others could play better. Content farms like Demand Media sprung up to create ultracheap, low-grade work — paying $7.50 an article! — that popped to the top of search rankings. (The downside of the SEO gamble is that you exist at Google’s mercy, and a series of changes in Google’s algorithms have left Demand Media an empty husk, its stock price down nearly 80 percent from its peak.)

More importantly, search declined in importance as a traffic driver because something rose to take its place: social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other networks built their businesses around person-to-person sharing — of what you had for breakfast this morning, yes, but also of news and other online content. Every day, social’s share of online news traffic grows as more and more people get headlines from Twitter on their phones rather than a news website at their desks.

(That new environment is, for instance, the main reason headlines have become so much more emotional and evocative. In a print newspaper, a headline is surrounded by lots of other contextual clues that tell you about the story: Is there a photo with it? Do I recognize the byline? Is it blazed across the top of Page 1 or buried on C22? Online, headlines often pop up alone and disembodied amid an endless stream of other content. They have a bigger job to do.)

This shift is, on net, a good thing. You get better work when you’re trying to please actual humans instead of opaque algorithms. Making work good enough to inspire someone to tell their friends about it encourages a lot of healthy behavior. But it also encourages changes to old news forms that some traditionalists might find disorienting. It turns out that the stories that you share with your friends don’t line up perfectly with the ones old-line news organizations produce.

At Quartz, Atlantic Media’s business news site, it leads to a near-deconstruction of the traditional news story into its constituent parts — inverted pyramids traded for standalone charts, intriguing data nuggets, and other highly sharable chunks of information. At the ever-growing BuzzFeed, it leads to lots of stories in listicle form, expressive animated GIFs where text used to be, and headlines optimized for clicking. At NowThis News, a social video startup, it means news updates as short as six seconds and a visual aesthetic that recalls MTV in 1983.

This too is healthy. The newspaper article, the television package — these are forms born in and tied to their medium, and too much of the first 20 years of the news web was spent pouring old wine into new wineskins. In 2013, we saw a lot of old formats inch closer to feeling indigenous to the web; witness the transformation of many longform pieces from grey text into multimedia, browser-native experiences.

As has been the case at every step of the digital news transition, there will be awkwardness and missteps along the way. Those emotional Upworthy headlines rub a lot of people the wrong way — even in the moment they click on them. But take them as signs that online content is evolving in new ways, ways that traditional outlets will be able to learn from and that will lead to a healthier future for journalism.

Image of dengue virus by Sanofi Pasteur used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 10, 2014, 10:48 a.m.
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