BLOG: When is it 'clickbait' and when is it journalism?

Of clickbait, Kardashians and how a community newspaper reporter grapples with the reality of 21st-century journalism

Julie Maclellan

Spoiler alert: There are no Kardashians anywhere in this post. Nor are there seven reasons for anything. Or 7, as the social media experts insist I must now write in headlines because people are more drawn to numerals than words. (Ugh. But OK.)

No, in this post, there is just one solitary community newspaper reporter taking on a criticism that’s being directed at us – “us” being the New Westminster Record and Burnaby NOW newsroom – with rapidly rising frequency: our tendency towards “clickbait” in our headlines and social media posts.

article continues below

The short answer? Guilty as charged.

If by “clickbait” you mean “headlines and posts deliberately written in such a way as to prompt you to click on them,” then yes, we are trying to do exactly that.

OK, we’re not exactly stooping to the level of “You won’t believe what happens next!” – but it’s not giving away any deep, dark trade secret to say we’re always on a quest to get more people to read the things we post. If media outlets are going to survive, they need readers and advertisers. And in a digital world, that means clicks.

To aid in that quest, we need to try out new tools, tricks and techniques. That means we’re trying to steer away from traditional print-style headlines and write livelier, more conversational, catchier things that will satisfy the insatiable cravings of the SEO algorithms and, yes, entice readers to actually click on them.

But does that make it clickbait? Your answer will depend how you define such a beast. A social media purist will argue that it’s not “clickbait” unless the article or post doesn’t follow through on what it said it was going to provide. Others see it differently. Many will scream “clickbait” the second any headline veers into the territory of one of these now-familiar formulas:

This New West street will be an awful mess for the next couple of months

Here’s how New West kids can get a medal from the mayor

7 ways to escape the bad air in Burnaby right now


Those are all actual headlines from our websites. None of them were attached to anything particularly provocative or controversial. All of them could have easily been written in a more traditional style:

Columbia Street faces closures for sewer work

Library’s summer reading club wraps up

Family fun to keep you busy in Burnaby


But we went for something a little different, to see if we could actually get folks to read what might otherwise have been some yawners they just scrolled right past. Clickbait? If you want to see it that way, sure. But relatively harmless insofar as it goes, I’d say. (And, yes, easily overused and formulaic – but let’s face it, much of journalism, print or otherwise, is based on formulaic writing. That’s what happens when you’re working in a business founded on speed and deadlines.)

There’s another level to all of this, though, and that’s where my short answer gets longer (as my short answers very nearly always do). That’s the level where a headline or post is not factually incorrect in any way but where it seems to be deliberately inflammatory or provocative.

Take the most recent example that drew some fire on Facebook just this week – a thoughtful post from our Mommy’s Grounded blogger, Bianca Bujan, that ran under the headline: “Please shut your little darlings up – nobody wants their noise.”

A couple of commenters noted the undeniable truth: that the headline itself was much more provocative (read: snarky) than the actual blog post, which was reasonable and fair-handed.

“The article itself presents a balanced point of view, it would be nice if the record would stop with the "click bait" head lines on Facebook posts,” said one commenter.

“Another good article with a terrible headline. Taking your kids out of a restaurant when they’re tantrumming is not the same as “shutting them up”,” said another.

I can’t disagree. In fact, I’ve been a hold-out from writing headlines like that for just that exact reason. But here’s the thing: the headline I probably would have written, in another day and age, wouldn’t have gotten any attention whatsoever.

If it had run with something like “Mom pleads for courtesy from fellow parents” or something similarly bland? We certainly wouldn’t have seen a discussion start on our Facebook page about it. And, I dare to suggest, a whole lot of people wouldn’t have even bothered to read the article – so Bianca’s well-written, thoughtful post would have fallen on deaf ears in the vast, shouty wasteland that is social media.

So what’s a journalist to do? Hold on steadfastly to traditional ways of doing things and ensure she never veers from the established road, all the while looking down her nose at the clickbaity types from her journalistic high horse? Or admit that sometimes, the clickbait crowd has a point, climb down from the high horse, and jump on their bandwagon before it gets away?

More likely, what that journalist does is try to find a middle ground: to not waver from the fundamental principles that journalism should be fair, objective, factual and accurate – all the things the world is in desperate need of from the media in our role as guardians of democracy – but to also accept that the world has changed.

What passed for a good headline in 1992, when I began my journalism career at the Orleans Star in suburban Ottawa, is not going to pass the click test in 2018. People consume news differently. They find their news in different places, using different gadgets and devices. They expect a different level of instant gratification and amusement wrapped up in their news. They believe it’s not necessarily a bad thing for newspapers – and their reporters - to have personalities, quirks and (gasp!) opinions.

All of which makes it challenging for those of us trying to strike that balance between maintaining the kind of reliable, trustworthy local reporting you’ve come to count on from your community newspapers – and keeping those community newspapers vibrant and visible in the wild and colourful digital landscape.

Do we get the balance right all the time? Nope.

Probably not even most of the time. And really, who's to say what the "right" balance is? My definition will be different from a co-worker's, which will be different from yours, which will be different from your neighbour's, which will be different from .. well, you get the idea. We'll all have our own opinions on what works - and some attempts will work better than others.

But we’re trying. With 25 years of community journalism under my belt, I can safely say that there’s never been a time of change as rapid as the past five years. We, as journalists, have been forced to evolve rapidly and to change the way we do things time and time again, at a pace that would have been unthinkable to those of us in Carleton University’s journalism class of 1993.

And, as our seven-member newsroom juggles our three print editions with our two websites and two social media streams, as each of us switches hats from print reporter to proofreader to digital reporter to layout artist to social media specialist several times a day, we’re learning on the fly – rather like the rest of the media world. Some of what we try works. Some of it can be consigned to the history books as a failed experiment, something we’ll laugh about years down the road when we’re reminiscing about how things worked in the good ol’ days.

So by all means, stay on top of what we’re doing. Call us out when you see us doing something you don’t like – whether that’s clickbaity headlines or something else altogether.

We want to hear from you. We love to hear from you. Having discussions with you, our readers, about these things can only make us better.

But maybe, just maybe, you can also find it in your heart to cut us a little slack, too. We’re only human – and that so-called “clickbait” that may seem to you like a cynical and greedy grab for eyeballs (and their associated dollars) is more than likely just the work of one slightly harried reporter posting on the fly before dashing off to the day’s next task.

Also, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are totally thinking about Baby No. 4.

Oh look, there were Kardashians in this post after all. You’re welcome.



















Read Related Topics

© New West Record