What this Stanford scholar learned about clickbait will surprise you

With real-time web analytics, journalists and editors now know more about traffic to their stories than ever before. But it doesn’t always result in the best stories. Angèle Christin explored the influence of these metrics in an American and a French newsroom.

We’ve all been lured by captivating headlines from online news publications: You’ll never believe it. What happens next will shock you. Eight things you should never do.

Also known as clickbait – stories with overpromising titles often delivering underwhelming content – proliferate news blogs and websites.

Curious to know more about how clickbait became prevalent in the modern newsroom, Angèle Christin, an assistant professor of communication at Stanford, followed some reporters and editors who write them.

Data-driven news

Clickbait

For most American news websites, metrics are an important factor for online advertising revenue. The more unique visitors a website attracts and the more page views an article gets, the more money it can make from advertisers. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Digital data and audience metrics have transformed journalism, said Christin in a study published March 20 in The American Journal of Sociology that examines how metrics shape newsroom dynamics in the United States and France.

Thanks to readily available real-time analytics, journalists and editors now know more about their readers than ever before. They can track how many people read each article, how long readers stay on a page and how they found the story. They know what gets read and what doesn’t – constituting a major transformation from traditional print journalism.

“Having this quantitative feedback really changes hierarchies between journalists within newsrooms,” said Christin. “Articles that couldn’t be compared before now can be compared using a single metric: clicks. That transforms the internal dynamic of newsrooms.”

For most American news websites, such metrics are an important factor for online advertising revenue. The more unique visitors a website attracts and the more page views an article gets, the more money it can make from advertisers. This dynamic drives stories that get higher traffic rather than higher quality stories.

“It is impossible to look at the recent evolution of journalism without looking at the evolution of online advertising because the two things are completely interconnected,” said Christin. Search engines such as Google and social media sites including Facebook have also expanded options traditionally available to advertisers, putting more pressure on news sites to bring in traffic and compete for those advertisers.

“As online advertising became increasingly competitive, news organizations did what they had to do to survive in this new environment,” said Christin.

Market pressure might explain to some extent why editors and journalists chase clicks with stories about cats and celebrities instead of serious news topics such as foreign policy or the economy, but according to Christin’s research, it is more nuanced than that.

Making sense of metrics

Christin wanted to better understand how journalists and editors really worked under this new hyperawareness of data. How are journalists making sense of these audience metrics? How do they react to traffic numbers? Are market forces really compromising their journalistic integrity?

Christin shadowed web journalists and editors for several years at two publications: One in the U.S. and the other in France where news media is heavily subsidized by the state. Because the state is a major actor in the media, French newsrooms do not encounter the same commercial pressures as their American counterparts, explained Christin. If revenues are out of the equation, then seemingly the pressure for clicks would not be as high.

But Christin found the opposite: At the French publication she studied, French writers fixated on clicks to a much higher extent than their U.S. counterparts. They obsessed over clicks because they saw it as a symbol of their impact as a writer in shaping the public debate, said Christin.

“My findings are paradoxical: You would expect French journalists to be much more anti-clicks compared to American journalists because U.S. journalism is much more market-driven,” said Christin, noting that American journalists viewed metrics as more of a technical game separate from their professional identity.

While American editors felt responsible for the commercial success of the publication, staffers counteracted to the pressures to achieve an economic objective. Staffers cited a professional ethos of editorial excellence that kept them buffered from market forces, said Christin.

“Even though the software for measuring clicks was exactly the same in the U.S. and France, I found strongly different interpretations of what audience metrics are about and divergent effects on newsroom dynamics in these two countries,” said Christin. “We often think of the spread of new technologies as causing different cultures to converge, but journalists make sense of web analytics differently depending on the context. They put traffic numbers to their own uses and for their own ends.”

The future of news

Setting advertising aside, Christin said traffic numbers might not be the right metric for newsrooms and journalists to track. There are alternative metrics that can emphasize quality over quantity such as the amount of time readers spend on a given news article. For journalists who want more influence over the public conversation, this might be a better metric.

In addition, Christin argued that clickbait might not necessarily be a bad thing if it can help cover the costs of producing high-quality content.

“Clickbait can be used to subsidize stories that turn us into more enlightened citizens able to vote in an informed way,” said Christin. “There could be a double newsroom where one part of the newsroom focuses on more traffic-driven content that would subsidize investigative journalists who are doing more in-depth stories,” Christin said, pointing to some newsrooms – including Buzzfeed – that recently turned to this mixed model.

As publishers deal with a range of problems that have led some to say that the newspaper industry is in crisis, Christin’s research shows that there is no simple or unique solution to sustain quality journalism online.

“But the whole system has to change in order for new metrics, including time engaged, to gain ground,” said Christin.

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: mdewitte@stanford.edu