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Ice Buckets, Celebrity Deaths and Other Clickbait: Why Old News is the New News

Read Tuesday, 9 Sep 2014

Anthony Morris looks at why so much of what we see in the newspapers (and worse, their online counterparts) these days is new versions of what we’ve already seen elsewhere. He measures the impact of clickbait, and its precise clocking of readership – and questions how we’ll ever hear about the new, when our reading behaviour demands more of the old.

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If you’ve been paying attention to the grim state of journalism today, you know that the time when reporters would go out and find the news – any kind of news – is over. Instead, with more writers having to do less, they’re at the mercy of PR companies bombarding them with press releases about what’s going on. The reporters then regurgitate the press releases with barely a second glance, not having the time or the knowledge to check the facts or the spin put on them. It’s a grim scenario… or at least, it would be if it were true: unfortunately the reality is much, much worse.

The trouble with this scenario is that it assumes that the media’s job is to inform the general public of new information; you can’t spell ‘news’ without ‘new’, as annoying people occasionally say to be extra annoying. It’s still a reasonable assumption; even until recently, people really would pick up newspapers and magazines seeking to be informed about new developments in areas they were interested in. But not any more. Now the media’s job is to tell you about things you already know, and to do it as often as possible.

Remember when Robin Williams died? There wasn’t a whole lot to that story past ‘Robin Williams has died’. Yet two days later while browsing a Fairfax website the list of the top five stories currently being viewed was a list of five stories about the death of Robin Williams. And fair enough too: his death hit many hard and it’s hardly surprising that readers would be interested in anything available about that kind of breaking news. But it’s not just big important (or ‘important’) news where this approach has taken hold; it’s now the standard business model across the internet.

In the past, you’d buy a newspaper for, say, the front-page news or the sports section and then have an entire newspaper to read. Now, people skim across the internet looking for news items that catch their eye. Obviously in a situation like this with so much choice available – it would be literally impossible for anyone to read even a fraction of the internet on a regular basis – people’s limited attention is going to be drawn to items about subjects that they’re already interested in.

What that means as a working writer is that pitches about exciting new stories (or just regular new stories) almost never get accepted. Meanwhile, pitches that put a slightly new spin – or even no new spin at all if enough time has passed – on something already popular have a much greater chance of success. If you’ve wondered why a highbrow literary magazine would call for pitches on ‘the feminist significance of Nicki Minaj’, mystery solved: feminism brings in readers, Nicki Minaj brings in readers, and if it turns out there isn’t all that much significance to her work from a feminist point of view, it doesn’t really mater because you’ve already clicked on the link.

Those clicks are important because the only way to make money online, unless you’re lucky enough to have a sponsor willing to fund your individual vision, is through advertising. In the printed past it was possible to smooth-talk clients into paying for ads by making various claims about readership that may not have been entirely backed up by the facts; if you’ve ever seen the way magazines casually claim readership figures four or five times their circulation – as if every single copy they print is read by four or five people – you have a bit of an idea how things used to work.

On the internet, readership isn’t a matter of estimations and guesses: a unique hit is a viewer, end of story. And with information as to how long a person spends reading a page readily available, it’s all but impossible to pretend all stories are created equal. Readers are drawn to topics they’re already interested in; advertisers are drawn to the stories people actually read; businesses need advertising money to stay afloat. In this environment, an obscure but interesting story has next to no chance of attracting any serious attention. And without attention, what’s the point of putting in the hard work to write that story when you can just write about something everyone else is already writing about?

Far from the explosion of information in every direction the internet initially promised, what we’ve ended up with is a narrowing of subject matter as internet sites all chase after the same few topics that can draw a big crowd. You can probably guess what those topics are; remember those ice bucket challenge videos? Celebrities doing silly stuff – for charity too – is the kind of thing the internet can’t get enough of. And by ‘the internet’ I mean ‘human beings’.

If you’re someone who requires attention to survive – which is just about everyone working in the arts – this is pretty much your worst nightmare. If you’re an unknown novelist, you’re probably going to remain unknown; same with musicians or performers. Maybe if you’re an actor you can stand next to a famous actor for a while and hope they’ll notice you. In the 21st century it’s become clear that the only way to be famous is to already be famous, much like the only way to become rich in our society is to already be rich. The system no longer rewards hard work and effort; if you’re not already part of the elite, your chances of joining them at the top of the pyramid is very slim indeed.

But what can the rest of us do to escape a future that’s just the same as today, only all the famous people are slightly older? Sure, you could make the effort to try to read stories about things you’re not already aware of, but how are you going to find those stories when everyone just wants to give you more of the same? How are you even going to know what’s out there that you might possibly be interested in when everyone is serving you things you already know you’ll like?

If you figure that one out, don’t keep it to yourself. There are a lot of artists out there who’d really like to know.

New News is a three-day programme of events on the future of journalism, presented in partnership with the Wheeler Centre and the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, from 9-11 October.

Most events are free, though bookings are required.

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