Newspapers and magazines have always been viewed as bastions of Truth, with their facts thoroughly researched, checked, and vetted by a team of intrepid journalists and editors. A publication’s reputation, and therefore circulation and profits, were based almost solely on the bond of trust they built with their audience. While headlines could be sensationalistic and mistakes were made, that trust kept the news organizations from going too far off the rails. This was as true of news stories as it was for fluff and human interest pieces.
News sites are a whole other animal. The internet has changed the way people consume news with aggregates and search engine results replacing headlines on newsstands. The organizations presenting themselves as news outlets on the worldwide web have little to do with those news outlets of old. While hyperbolic, I can understand. It makes sense that these companies would do this, since they have only a moment to grab a reader’s attention and make them click.
In the 19th century it was cotton. In the 20th it was arms. In the 21st century, clicks are king. For those who don’t know, people do things because they get paid. This applies especially to writers. Traditional writing aids like absinthe and opium ain’t cheap. The way websites earn cash is through advertisements on their pages. Usually, the amount of money a website will make on an ad is based on the amount of traffic it gets. Put simply; the more traffic your website gets, the more advertisers want to run ads on it, and the more you can charge for the space. At its most basic, this isn’t any different than the way that the periodical publishing industry has always worked. Google changed everything.
If you want people to see your website, it behooves you to be listed on the first page of any search engine results, which most large sites do by hiring someone(s) to handle search engine optimization (SEO) for them. Google is a fickle mistress, but there are a few strategies that are pretty consistent. First, is having “good” “unique” content. A site also gets credit for having a lot of content. In the case of a news site or blog, as opposed to an e-commerce site, social media is huge. Not only does it help directly draw traffic when people post links to a story to their blogs, Facebook walls, and Twitter accounts, but those links are factored into Google’s algorithms. Simply put, the more people who are talking about a story, the more people will see it. Aggregators like Flipbook gather news stories from multiple sources for users to gain access to everything in one place, but when choosing what to display it will usually be based on story popularity.
What all this means is that news organizations have found themselves in direct competition with every single blogger on the world wide web. While one would hope that this would have meant an increase in quality and a greater appreciation for their work, it has actually had the opposite effect. People will click on a headline in search results based on how interesting they find it, and those that are the most sensational draw the most clicks. It’s that simple.
This has left us with sites like buzzfeed and Business Insider showing up in search results next to the Huffington Post. And that leads to stories like HuffPost’s “Everything You Know About St. Patrick’s Day Is Wrong”, which is not only hyperbole, but contains incorrect information, unrelated facts, and contradictory items. But, they included a GIF with each “fact” in the post, so there’s that.
A decade ago no one took The Daily Mail seriously. It was obviously a tabloid when it sat on a newspaper rack next to The Sun and The National Enquirer. On the internet, though, someone who clicks on a link to a single story on a site that appears to be a legitimate news source might be forgiven for believing that a ghost ship filled with cannibalistic plague rats is actually about to beach itself in Ireland. There’s no way for the average netizen to tell the difference between a legitimate news source from link bait. Until our friends in Mountain View stop giving equal weight to the crap, the trend is just going to keep on getting worse.