Back in the halcyon days of fully-staffed newsrooms, writing headlines was not a task trusted to lowly journalists. It took many years of sub-editing experience to learn the craft. Headlines were just too important to get wrong. Circulation figures relied on good headlines to stop people in their tracks and make them want to buy a newspaper. A good headline told the full story and it enticed people to read more.
One of the key elements of a good headline was trust. The reader knew what they were getting from that one short sentence in bold print. The rest of the copy on the page was just detail. The more you read the more you understood.
A good headline never tricked a reader. A newspaper’s reputation wouldn’t allow that. This was how it used to be, long before the art of headline writing became soiled by the term clickbait.
Clickbait is the exact opposite of a good headline. Clickbait fools people into investing time and energy into exploring often paper thin content. It plays on emotions rather than telling a good story. Its purpose is not to sell a story to its reader. It’s purpose is to drive advertising revenues without offering any real value to the reader.
Clickbait is the editorial equivalent of a spam email. Dishonest, unwanted and a complete waste of time.
So the news that Facebook is taking on the clickbait merchants with changes to its newsfeed algorithm which will reduce the visibility of such tawdry headlines is to be welcomed.
The system which works in a similar fashion to email filters employed to identify spam communications was introduced following demands from the social network’s users who want to see more relevant and useful stories in their newsfeeds.
Newspaper editors, who are often quick to criticise social media and blame them for their misfortune, could do worse to follow in Facebook’s footsteps and banish clickbait to the history books. If they want to stay relevant and engage their readers, why would they sell something that promises the complete opposite?
Clickbait headlines might drive revenues in the short term but will ultimately further degrade the newspaper industry to a point it might not be able to return from.