CLICK THIS! A discussion of click-bait headlines and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

I got a message the other day from a former student who now works at Facebook with this question:

Do you know of any companies that are taking headline data to see if it accurately portrays what happens in the story/to see if it is misleading in any way when compared to the truth? I feel like headlines with companies who don’t have a subscription model or physical paper are extremely click baity and usually on the edge of the truth these days. What is your opinion Sensei?

His concern was that he had noticed at his current job and his previous job that a lot of the headlines he was seeing were “painfully inaccurate.” After clicking on the link, people got a half-baked story that just ticked them off and they left the site without any real value.

We got into a long discussion on the ideas of how the model for journalism on the web has bent the truth in a lot of ways. In addition, we dug into the reasons behind this. At that point, I introduced him to one of my favorite Filak-isms: The Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism. I talked about this once before here, but given that the post got seven total reads, I don’t think I’m overselling this:

Let’s say I’m running a rummage sale (garage sale, estate sale, or whatever else you call it when people sell their old stuff on the lawn during the summer) and I have a lawn mower I want to get rid of. The thing runs “sort of” but I can pump enough starting fluid into it and keep it warmed up enough that it looks great to potential buyers.

When someone comes up to me and asks, “Does it start?” I can say, “Sure!” and start it up. So that guy buys it from me and takes it home, only to have it start running lousily and having the problems I used to have with it. Now he’s upset, but what do I care? He’s not coming back and I’ve sold the mower. It’s like Charlie Sheen doing lousy stand up comedy and then telling the audience, “Sorry, dude, I got your money already.”

Conversely, if I ran a store where I sold lawn mowers, I couldn’t get away with this approach to business. For one thing, I’m going to count on that guy to come back and buy other supplies or another mower once he wants to upgrade. I’m also going to need good word of mouth, as I need other people to come over and buy their lawn mowers from me. I’m not in it for the short run. I’m in this for the long haul.

If you want to make journalism your career, you need to think about the long haul and how you want people to hang around and read your stuff. You want to build a base of loyal readers who see value in what you are doing. You want to earn and bank a ton of credibility, so people know they can trust you and they will forgive you if you occasionally screw up.

But that takes time, energy, money and interest. Throwing up a headline that says, “President to resign after being found with dead hooker in his bedroom!” and waiting for the clicks to pour in is so much easier. It’s like the Old-West traveling salesmen who would sell snake oil and magic elixir out of the back of a wagon. By the time you figured out the stuff was garbage, they were gone.

In our discussion, we kicked around a few ideas on how we could cut down on the click-bait headlines. (My personal favorite would be Facebook and others finding a way to “cheat” people out of that first click. Right now, you run that click-bait headline and promote it like crazy on Facebook to get that first click. When people click, you get paid. However, they feel cheated when they go to your site and they don’t click anywhere else. Thus, if there was a way to eliminate value in that first click, and people could only make money off of clicks 2 through infinity, the site itself would have to have value.)

Near the end of the discussion there was this exchange:

Him: Is quality media dying?
Me: Yes.
Him: How do we fix it?
Me: Stop incentivizing bad behavior, like those headlines. Invest in quality journalism like (the Washington Post ownership) is doing. Stop letting hedge funds buy newsrooms and treat them like a car chop-shop with fewer ethical qualms.

Any other ideas? I’d love to hear them and so would he.

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