Clickbait, murderous gnomes and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

In an attempt to point out how problematic question headlines, question leads and rhetorical questions were in journalism, I wrote a post using a hyperbolic question as a headline to prove my point: Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you?

I inadvertently proved a second point: Why people use them and why they’re worse than I thought.

I posted the headline on Facebook and Twitter, which usually leads to a few dozen hits. About 20 minutes later, I went back to make a minor correction and found that my web traffic had spiked. The tweet was being retweeted like crazy (a relative term for a no-name blog) and I was getting people from Egypt, England and any other E place I’d never been showing up on the site. I don’t get paid for this and there are no ads, so web traffic isn’t vital to putting food on the table or keeping shoes on my kid’s feet, but it is kind of a rush to see actual, live people showing up to read something I wrote.

Here’s the problem: They were one-click wonders. For them, it was essentially clickbait.

They showed up because the headline made them curious, but once they figured out this was basically a site for journalism students and contained no actual murderous gnomes, they left. Traffic in the subsequent days was back to its usual collection of my three closest friends and that one former student who keeps looking for spelling errors so he can torment me.

In quality journalism, regardless of if we are talking about news, ad, pr, marketing or anything else, we don’t want to have what I call a Rummage Sale Theory mentality. The idea behind this “Filak-ism” is based in a tradition in Wisconsin, whereby summer comes and everyone in this proud state starts selling stuff out of their garages on weekends. Cities build events around “citywide rummage days” and there are flea markets all over the place.

A rummage-sale mentality says, “I want to sell this thing and get it the heck out of my garage.” Thus, when you are selling a somewhat wonky lawnmower and someone asks, “Does it run?” you might respond with, “Yeah! Runs great!” The idea is that if this person buys the mower, you will never see him or her again. It’s not like someone is coming back in two weeks to knock on your door and tell you, “Hey, that mower sucks!” It’s a one-time transaction-based relationship with someone you will never see again and about whom you care very little.

You have to approach journalism like the owner of a local store: You live there, people will come to you multiple times and if you mess them over, you are in a lot of trouble. People will avoid your store and tell other people about the bad experiences they had with you. You will gain a reputation that harms your ability to do your job.

Conversely, if you treat people right, give them what they need in an honest and upfront fashion and avoid the one-hit-wonder, clickbait mentality, you will develop great relationships that further your reputation as a trusted resource. It’s why ads need to be more fact than hype. It’s why PR professionals profess transparency as the main virtue of the field. It’s why reporters stick to promises of anonymity, even when it would be better for them to throw a source to the wolves.

In this field, we own the store. We live here. We need to act like it.

We can’t sell people broken lawnmowers powered by homicidal gnomes and expect to survive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s