Adele and the death of clickbait

“A hastily written article may net a few hundred or a few thousand clicks (if you’re lucky) — maybe more if it gains traction. But digital natives have wised up.”

Journalism is dying. It’s dead. Call the cryptkeeper because it’s buried six feet under.

mark-luckieYou know what other industry is dying? Music. Nobody buys records anymore. Except they are. Adele and a few other artists have bucked this trend by releasing substantive music that is unmistakably theirs. But like an increasing segment of pop music, some journalism has been reduced to a pre-fab format of what we think will get web denizens to make that all-important click.

By now, you’re familiar with clickbait: stories several paragraphs long that could easily be one sentence; headlines that pose questions that aren’t answered in any meaningful way in the copy; uninspired lists of tweets culled by a social media producer eager to get an ounce of the zeitgeist traffic. 2015 saw a rise in the amount of clickbait scuttling its way through the web.

A hastily written article may net a few hundred or a few thousand clicks (if you’re lucky) — maybe more if it gains traction. But digital natives have wised up: They’re less likely to share after they read these articles because of their lack of heft. Newsrooms who employ this tactic immediately lose the trust of users, who don’t return for more.

Just like clickbait articles, there are plenty of Adele knockoffs out there. You can hear “Rolling in the Deep” being belted out at any local karaoke bar. There are thousands of YouTube stars covering the singer’s tracks, hoping for a sliver of the success she has enjoyed.

Adele’s new album 25 has already sold more than 5 million copies, mostly because she set the expectation for her fans that good music was to come. It’s her meaningful lyrics within the space of a four-minute song that capture our hearts. We can all see ourselves in Adele’s vocalized breakups and triumphs.

People want content that they can connect to on an emotional level and that they know their friends will too. That’s the secret to virality, as many newsrooms have uncovered this year.

You may be asking yourself: Well, Mark, isn’t the headline of this article kind of clickbaity? Yes, and knowingly so. Your article can be topped with a cool headline, but you’d better back it up with something substantive. (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether I’ve done that here.) Listicles and quizzes can also rightly earn a place alongside traditional reporting if they follow the aforementioned tenet.

From 2010 to 2012, we witnessed the majority of newsrooms taking to social media to publish their content and, to varying degrees, interact with users. One or two years later, we saw an expansion of this theme as newsrooms hired additional staffers to capitalize on a powerful conduit for traffic.

In 2015, the news industry saw a divergence in strategy. Some publishers steered their newly hired staffers and the existing cadre of reporters toward creating spot content. The faster it was published, the better. Context, in many cases was incidental.

On the other end of the spectrum, we saw newsrooms make a push toward unique digital content. Some of the breakout stars of the past year — BuzzFeed Video and the lauded podcast Another Round, The New York Times’ Justine Sacco piece and others like it, the work of The Washington Post’s team of dedicated social media journalists, the contextual reporting on Vox, and a little podcast named Serial — all drew large audiences through social. In 2016, we’ll see more of these ventures as newsrooms pursue original ideas and strategies.

Why be a first-week flop when you can be the celebrated talent this industry called you to be? Set your own standards of excellence instead of looking to others for inspiration. Be your own competition. In 2016, it’s time to stop chasing pavements and instead set fire to the rain (see what I did there?). Will an immediate shift in focus make your stories go multi-platinum? Maybe not. But pushing tinfoil tweets isn’t going to get you there either.

Mark S. Luckie is the creator of Today in #BlackTwitter and former manager of news at Twitter.

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