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?

Statehouse reporting is dead; long live statehouse reporting

A lot of pixels have already been spilled in the past week about the closing of the Lee Enterprises state bureau in Helena and the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, but I’m going to chip in too, mostly because I feel that their apotheosis has gone far enough.

Were Johnson and Dennison veterans with lots of institutional knowledge? Absolutely. Were they good reporters? Likely they were; but, to be honest, any reporter who has spent long enough on a single beat will appear to be a goodish reporter simply by dint of getting to know sources and topics. I don’t know; maybe that’s enough to be “good.”

Subjectivity aside, bloggers across Montana are heralding their departures as the end of competent government watchdog reporting, whining that Montanans will be poorly informed by the cub reporters paid a pittance to cover the next Legislature. Journalism is dying, alack!

I call bullshit.

Lee Enterprises was not the only news company covering the Legislature. And though Lee was one of only a handful that still sent reporters physically to Helena for the session, they were not the only watchers, not by a long shot.

The Chronicle churned out legislative coverage relevant to our readers on a daily basis throughout the session, covering bill after bill and, I may say, beating Lee on a scoop more than once.

Television, though I am not exactly a huge fan, had reporters in Helena throughout the session too, as did public radio. The University of Montana sends a team of eager student journalists to cover each session as well, providing daily coverage that appeared in newspapers around the state — newspapers, I would note, that were not owned by Lee Enterprises and did not have access to the prose of Johnson and Dennison. And let’s not forget the Associated Press, which also does a fine job of covering the Legislature for readers, spreading news far wider than Lee, which, lest we forget, shares with Lee papers first (and then throws a few scraps to the AP later).

The notion that young reporters won’t be able to cover the Legislature as effectively as the vets would hold more water if the session hadn’t been so well covered by young reporters already. To say that the vets’ B.S. meters are worn in as well as a pair of old cowboy boots while these young cubs can’t yet find the bathrooms (“Ha! Young people are dumb!”) insults the young reporters and their ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow as professionals.

Look, Johnson and Dennison are gone. Instead of pining for the bygone past, we need to decide what we expect from statehouse journalism in 2017 and beyond.

 

Award winning

MNA LogoAt the Montana Newspaper Association banquet this weekend in Missoula, the judges saw fit to name this site Best Blog of 2012. I’m honored to have won the award and thrilled to have beaten out Billings Gazette blogs, which finished second and third in the category.

I like to jab the Gazette when I can because I envy the Lee-style sites — their sites run on the same software that the BDC site does, and it amazes me what they’ve been able to do about the speed and responsiveness of their templates.

Considering how many other categories the BDC finished second to the Gazette in, I have to lord it over them where I can too.

[The PowerPoint of winners is here](http://www.mtnewspapers.com/awards). There’s no regular text list that I can find (for shame!).