“Clickbait!”

BY AARON BARLOW

In early 2016, I shared on this blog a statement by a tenured professor recently fired by the University of California at Riverside. One of the comments, by a former colleague of the ex-professor, accused me of posting his statement solely as “clickbait.” I chuckled, but the accusation rankled: the Academe blog carries no advertising. Outside of vanity, there’s little advantage for us in trying to draw clicks. The AAUP is member-financed and clicks are unlikely to draw new members.

Actions are, however, and the AAUP concentrates on those, not on increasing its profile through clicks. People pay attention to the AAUP not because we draw attention to it here (certainly not through the sorts of misleading come-ons that have become nearly ubiquitous on the web) but because those actions often produce results.

I thought about this today as I was reading an article in the Atlantic Monthly by former New Republic editor Franklin Foer, “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism.” Foer writes of an “underlying rot” in the profession of journalism, one brought on by the clickbait mentality of so many contemporary news sites, one that has contributed to an increasing national climate of distrust and that has helped widen our political divides—all in the hopes of attracting more clicks.

The problem extends further back and is much broader than the rise of Silicon Valley (as Jay Rosen continues to show and as James Fallows made so clear in his 1996 book Breaking the News—and as I tried to demonstrate in The Rise of the Blogosphere, now more than a decade old). The decline of American journalism was even demonstrated through the New Republic’s own pages in the 1990s, for it was there that Stephen Glass made such a hit with his made-up but extremely appealing stories.

Having collapsed as a real profession of integrity by the first years of this century, American journalism was perfectly positioned for a hostile takeover. From what Foer writes, using the New Republic as a cautionary tale, that’s exactly what has happened. He claims, “As Silicon Valley has infiltrated the profession, journalism has come to unhealthily depend on the big tech companies, which now supply journalism with an enormous percentage of its audience—and, therefore, a big chunk of its revenue.”

In one of his most telling passages, Foer comments that:

Data have turned journalism into a commodity, something to be marketed, tested, calibrated. Perhaps people in the media have always thought this way. But if that impulse existed, it was at least buffered. Journalism’s leaders were vigilant about separating the church of editorial from the secular concerns of business. We can now see the cause for fanaticism about building such a thick wall between the two.

That wall was never as thick as it should have been, as any careful student of journalism knows (and as Foer admits). And news was always a commodity.

However, in the 1960s, when television news was beginning its ascendancy and the plush photomags like Life and Look were on almost every living-room table—along with the even more ubiquitous Time—there was another strand of journalism as well, one not quite so beholden to the almighty dollar. This ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ journalism didn’t try to do what the ‘big kids’ did—it hadn’t the money or the possibility of drawing it—but it contributed to the profession in ways that helped keep even the larger outfits on track. In those days, great works of journalism appeared from the mainstream news media, just as they still do (as Foer goes to some length to point out), but the lure of money and fame did take a toll—just as it is doing today—and some sort of counterbalance was needed.

Perhaps the most famous human example of this journalistic counterweight was I. F. “Izzy” Stone, the independent journalist who burrowed into government archives in search of truth, not fame. In those days, fringe publications like the one he put out did not see a path to huge profitability so didn’t try; they had other goals. By the end of the 1960s, however, some of them, like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone began to show that they could become profit centers. They were soon absorbed into the mainstream media in just the way that journalism today is being absorbed by the technology companies. Those who were not, simply faded away—for the most part.

Some of those others, like Academe, had never been part of profit-motivated journalism and so survived. Many of these, again like Academe, had niche purposes, addressing the membership of particular organizations. They could survive without huge reliance on advertising—and have done so. Their numbers were too few, however, to provide the continued balance needed by the commercial press for assurance of at least some integrity in the profession.

Though Foer doesn’t mention it explicitly, what his article points out is the need for a new financial model for journalism, one that can compete with the behemoths at least to the extent of keeping them honest. Rosen is exploring possibilities of importing the Dutch “De Correspondent” model into the American news market and that might provide one model. Smaller magazines like Academe can be part of this new alternative press, too, adding at least their own little weight to the movement. There are certainly other ideas out there, too. The need is definitely there, a vacuum that air of some sort will rush into. As many of us as possible need to be part of that air—without also being sucked in the other direction, the profit-driven one.

If journalism is to survive with any integrity intact, it must include an alternative to clickbait. As an optimist, I am certain it will though, after reading Foer, I am also beginning to have my doubts.

2 thoughts on ““Clickbait!”

  1. One way for good journalism to survive is with the help of academia. Student publications, faculty-student publications, and nonprofit publications that work with universities can all help to create investigative media outlets when the for-profit system is in decline. And this shouldn’t be limited to journalism schools; all parts of academia can be part of a movement to educate the public, from science magazines and websites produced by science students and faculty, to a wide range of specialized and broad publications that serve the public rather than the corporations.

    • You are absolutely right, John. I was thinking about that, about how “.edu” could be used as a positive force in journalism. About how it should be the counterbalance to the nonsense passing so often as “debate” and “information.” That may have to become the explicit mission of many of us.

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