7 Feb 2016

Resisting the rising tide of clickbait

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 7 February 2016

Websites offering popular news for free are pulling in more and more people, and attracting advertising income which once covered the costs of quality journalism. Mediawatch asks a former boss of Rupert Murdoch's UK newspapers if clickbait is here to stay, and if established news media can survive without it.

In 2013, Mike Darcey was a senior executive at Rupert Murdoch's pay-TV company in the UK, BSkyB. One day, Mr Murdoch himself called and asked the New Zealander to take charge at News UK, the company publishing his newspapers there. 

Mr Darcey was surprised. News UK was dealing with the fallout from the phone-hacking scandal (something he discussed on Mediawatch last week), and he had no experience at all running newspapers.

"I reminded him of the fact I'd only worked in pay TV for fifteen years," Mr Darcey told Mediawatch.

"Don't worry.They're just the same," the media mogul replied.

picture of Mike Darcey

Mike Darcey Photo: supplied

"I thought that was an odd thing to say, but they do have more in common than you might think," said Mr Darcey.

Merging and converging

"If you're a journalist chasing a story you think you're in a completely different game to someone filming a football match, but it's all about making a creative proposition and offering it for sale, infused with advertising".

The distribution methods were once very different - papers printed and delivered in vans throughout the night, while sport, news and movies were beamed down to households by satellite.

"But now, we're all offering it on a tablet, a phone or on a webpage as well," said Mr Darcey.

Newspaper and pay-TV companies alike must persuade customers and subscribers to pay a premium in markets where plenty of similar content is available for free. This is the major dilemma for the news media everywhere.

Putting up paywalls

News UK was one of few British publishers determined not to give away its news for free online. Since 2010, stories from its broadsheet papers The Times and The Sunday Times have only been available electronically to paying subscribers.

In 2013, Mr Darcey was bullishly pushing the prospects of paywalls:

Many people still argue that charging for newspapers online will never work. I say three things. First, it is working. Second, that should be no great surprise as charging for news is not a new idea. And third, if still in doubt, there is already a good model for how this works in pay TV.

Mr Darcey put the UK's biggest-selling paper The Sun behind a paywall, making it the only British tabloid asking online readers to pay. The gamble appeared to pay off at first. More than 100,000 people signed up in the first few months.

But when Murdoch's lieutenant Rebekah Brooks took over from Mr Darcey at News UK in October 2015, she immediately pulled the paywall down. Making the content free again would boost online readership and "supercharge our digital advertising capabilities," she said.

In other words, upping the online eyeballs was worth more than small sums from subscribers.

Rivals for eyeballs

Even though The Sun is by far Britain's biggest selling newspaper, two other UK-based titles attract audiences ten times as big online.

One is The Guardian, whose steadfast policy is to put as much as possible online for free. The other is an offshoot of tabloid paper The Daily Mail, Mail Online where the news is hard to find among masses of "clickbait".

Screenshot of a typical Mail Online homepage lead story.

A typical Mail Online homepage lead story. Photo: screenshot

If there's a such a large appetite for sensational and celebrity-based news online, can traditional names in news media afford to ignore it?

"There are big questions about that Mail Online model," Mr Darcey told Mediawatch. "It's consistently talked about as wildly successful, but it's not profitable. It's hard to make enough money from online advertising to cover costs. They have 720 staff. If it becomes profitable, then it may only be a model that can fund celebrity gossip."    

Could a publisher harvest clickbait to subsidise serious - but loss-making - journalism? Buzzfeed has lots of clickbait-style content but also runs investigations, sometimes in tandem with the biggest names in news

"Shareholders may tire of that. They'll want to keep the profitable bit and shut down the loss-making bit," Mr Darcey said.

Screenshot of Buzzfeed and BBC investigation into corruption in world tennis.

Online outlet Buzzfeed isn't light on clickbait, but has also run investigations like this one with the BBC alleging corruption in tennis Photo: screenshot

"There are plenty of stories of investors willing to back internet enterprises showing success in growing traffic and hoping to make money later," said Mr Darcey. "Some of them - Facebook, Google - have a happy ending, but there are plenty that disappeared without trace and we never hear of them". 

The Daily Mail, he said, is entirely separate from the Mail Online operation - for a good reason.

"If you have the two close together, you get confused about what you're doing. The clickbait journalism ends up getting more resources if it's more popular. That undermines investment in the core and that can damage journalism."

"If you chase the clickbait money, people come to the site and read the gossip-type article, and then they're gone. Don't kid yourself they've come to read your news and you have contributed to the future of the news organisation."