Lee, hell-bent for pageviews, goes the clickbait route

Ed Kemmick hits the nail on the head this morning with his post on the direction Lee Enterprises seems to be going online:

At the same time they are cutting back on staff and by extension drastically reducing traditional newspaper reporting, they are attempting to increase their online presence—in other words, to get more clicks—by constantly running the sort of click-bait crap that already pollutes the Web to such an offputting degree.

Some of it is mildly entertaining, but even the best of it is so obviously designed only for generating clicks that it is embarrassing. I really don’t want to go in search of links, but any regular readers of the online Gazette will know what I’m referring to: the Top 10 Montana references on Letterman, 10 local restaurants that aren’t open anymore, photos of long-ago local rock bands, Montana towns named after foreign places, famous Montanans bitten by three-legged dogs.

OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. What they all have in common is that they require no reporting—unless plumbing the archives or consulting Wikipedia is considered reporting—and they invariably involve a gallery of photos that you have to click through one at a time, the better to generate numbers that can be shown to potential advertisers.

In the short-term—and if there is one thing Lee Enterprises does well it is thinking in the short term—it undoubtedly does generate bigger numbers and probably brings in some revenue. In the long term, even readers who click through all that crap are going to start asking themselves, why bother?

The optimistic, business types among modern newspaper people would see this as brilliant: Make use of the archives that were previously sitting their idle by repackaging and re-presenting them to readers. This sort of recycled content plays especially well on Facebook, whose users feed on nostalgia, and since Facebook is such an important source of Web traffic, it pays to play the game.

Plus, it isn’t like newspapers haven’t been doing the “clickbait” thing for a hundred years. It’s only recently that the practice of trying overtly to attract readers has become an all-purpose means of deriding news organizations and expressing disapproval in their content.

Tim Marchman at Deadspin put it this way last year, journalism is a trade, and its art is “in satisfying a bewildering variety of competing interests by working not only in service of all the impossibly interesting stories in the world—some of them very important, some not very important at all—but also the impossibly busy people who might read them.”

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong in trying to please a varied audience online or play the stats game, but Kemmick is absolutely right about one thing: Such clickbait features can be created by a “producer” sitting around at a computer all day performing searches, the same kind of content farm mentality that has brought us sites like ViralNova and Buzzfeed — sites we hate to admit we spend a lot of time on, judging by their Web stats.

And when the people holding news organizations’ purse strings see that they can get a whole lot of online bang just by paying a few people to sit around on computers all day creating slideshows, rather than by paying reporters to go out and get stories the hard way, what do we honestly think they’ll budget for?