Saturday, 30 January 2016

Is It All Just Click-Bait?

I feel that I, as a blogger, take some liberties in writing pieces that please only me. To be honest, I want to inform, educate, entertain, and have you return as readers, but I have a pretty nice luxury in that I am responsible to no one regarding deadlines, story content, or word counts. Unlike the vast majority of print journalists today, I don't have to worry about generating dollars or hitting a specific amount of clicks on a story, so it's a completely different game for me than what real journalists - those with the degrees - are playing. After seeing a complaint on Twitter this week about the content and quality of stories about women's hockey, I think we need to examine the boundaries that journalists play within when compared to the bloggers who are complaining about said coverage.

I was reading an article today on Quartz about what graduates from journalism programs face in entering their chosen field. The writer, Catchpool Founder Erica Berger, points out that the world of journalism has changed immensely in the face of new media and that a number of older, well-respected journalists have been forced out of the industry due to these changes while new journalists with less experience are over-worked and feeling burned out by their chosen profession. Miss Berger, for her part, "used to work at The Economist, then news startup Storyful," and now runs the news startup she founded in Catchpool.

I feel this article by Miss Berger captures a lot of where friend, blogger, and NCAA women's hockey genius Nicole Haase was pointing out on Twitter this past week. Nicole was lamenting the number of news outlets seemingly show up to write the most basic of women's hockey stories without actually going into any depth or showing any knowledge about the sport.
The problem? Nicole is entirely right in her assessment. I've read enough stories on the dream forming after the Sochi Olympics of having a paid women's hockey league. I've read the same Dani Rylan quotes - word for word - in dozens of pieces that are now climbing aboard this new-found wave of women's hockey.

So how does this happen? Better yet, how can it be fixed?

Writing For Clicks And Audience

Miss Berger identifies the problems up front in the Quartz article.
Most of the time, when we talk about journalism and media, we talk about ad dollars, circulation revenue, and attention (let's be real — clicks) from the audience. I'm not the first to write about the decline in the quality of editorial content or ad dollars. But it is rare that we discuss what online media in particular is doing to journalists, writers, and editors in the fast-moving digital age.
Think about how you get your news. Is it from a newspaper? Do you tune into the nightly news at 6pm? Or do you log onto whatever news site or social media site and find out about what's happening in the world whenever you like? Convenience has its benefits, I'll admit, but it's this online media that is competing with the print and TV journalists for, as Miss Berger writes, "ad dollars, circulation revenue, and attention".

Because news is so accessible anytime, any place, anywhere now, the audience for online news stories has significantly changed as well. With how online stories are shared and aggregated, there's a much wider audience than ever before. No longer are stories about women's hockey in Connecticut just shared locally and grabbed by one or two major national media sources, this information is now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection on the planet who has the ability to use a search engine.

In saying this, I'm not rationalizing or justifying the same news stories being written time and time again. What I am saying is that major outlets who are jumping onboard a new trend in news see the startup of a paid professional women's league as an easy story to report. Thanks to the power of aggregation and sharing, they cater to their growing online audiences who may or may not be aware of how the NWHL got started, and they write for the larger majority - those who don't know the NWHL's founding story - than they do for the informed. Because the majority will bring more clicks, that's the story they run.

And what do clicks bring? More "ad dollars, circulation revenue, and attention." In theory.

In reality, the problem with the stories aren't the stories themselves, but it's the model in which they are written. I'll wager that 90% of the similar NWHL founding stories never see the printing press. They are written solely for an online audience. They'll be redressed with new images and interesting formatting on each of the websites, but the goal is always the same: clicks. Clicks generate revenue, and revenue keeps the site online. And these stories always seem to appear with the coincidence of a major event such as the NWHL All-Star Game.

We'll make this a little more interesting. I'll bet that we get a handful of NWHL founding stories in March with the NWHL Championships taking place on March 11-13. Anyone wanna bet me that there won't be these stories written about the success of the first women's paid league? I didn't think so.

How Does It Change?

I'll go back to a quotation from Miss Berger.
Young people in the media frequently complain about all of the extra skills young journalists now need to get hired and create compelling content. We worry about how hard it can be to get a job. We spill a lot of ink whining about the decline of quality content and reporting, and the rise of so-called click-bait. We bemoan the difficulty of making money while producing good journalism, and we try to fix the problem through technological innovations, subscription services and partial paywalls.
We've seen this happen on a number of sites where subscriptions and paywalls now prevent access to journalism. And while I don't bemoan the fact that people want to be paid for the work they do, it's the quality of this work that's under fire in this piece.

Jim Tankersley, the The Washington Post's economic policy correspondent interviewed by Miss Berger for the Quartz piece, stated quite bluntly, "We should all worry about reporters running out of time or energy for more ambitious work."

I think that's a fair comment when looking at traditional media outlets. The game has changed significantly for print reporters in that newsrooms are being downsized and the demands for stories and content is always on the rise. In between starting and filing stories are vital skills and jobs that have either disappeared or are being used less due to time constraints in an ever-changing news environment. Miss Berger writes,
If the media continues to be created and spread at such a rapid rate, we know the effects are unlikely to be positive. Fact-checking already has a troubling tendency to fall by the wayside. The need to churn out constant content also means that editors often lack the time to do more than proofread. Then there are the intangible things we're losing: the art and joy of writing; the ability to leave the office in search of interesting people and stories begging to be told. Most worrisome of all, we could lose journalists' ability to act as watch dogs on behalf of the public.
All of these factors have, in my opinion, contributed to the same carousel of stories being reported in women's hockey. From media outlets in Connecticut picking up the brawl between the Riveters and Whale while ignoring the Whale's undefeated record at that time to reporters showing up at rinks and asking questions that the women have answered ad nauseum about the game, it's a very telling sign of the downward spiral that journalism is on while being a complete and utter disservice to women's hockey as journalists now encroach into this sport.

While it's true that the worst part about being talked about is not being talked about, if every story says the same thing, people will stop talking about women's hockey altogether. It's impossible to grow the game in any significant manner if no one is paying attention.

Are We Doomed?

I'm not sure that question is entirely fair, but I think the model is doing a disservice to women's hockey. Since the model can't be changed overnight, it's going to require a bit of work that will come from both the journalism side and the public.

First, as Miss Berger stated above, journalists have to act on behalf of the public. They have the training, the ethics, and the access to be able to ask tough questions and probe into stories about which the public care. This is why more stories are being written about women's hockey - the public has shown an interest and passion for the game.

The problem is that these stories cater to the lowest common denominator, if you'll excuse the expression, in delivering the mere basics. As stated above, the uninformed should generate more clicks being that the uninformed is usually the majority which, in turn, drives more revenue on the first telling only. That italicized part is important.

Secondly, we need to ask more of our journalists and media outlets. Dr. Douglas LaBier, a business psychologist and director of the Center for Progressive Development, said in the Quartz interview, "When building a journalistic career today, it's easy to be pulled into going after whatever shiny objects look enticing. To counter that, you need to build a strong inner core of self-knowledge regarding your own values and a capacity for inner calm."

The problem is that, like Nicole was indicating, women's hockey isn't some "shiny object" that just popped up overnight. These are women who have sacrificed a lot in life in becoming who they are today - icons, idols, and heroes - for men, women, boys, and girls all over the globe. They are the backbone of every club team, every college and university program, and every Olympic squad. They are the architects for dreams of future generations of women's hockey players. They are wildly successful women - daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, and friends. They deserve more than "Are your parents proud?" or "Is this the biggest win in your career?"

I don't think we're doomed as much as we've missed out on, as demonstrated above, the ability and time to do proper research and ask relevant questions instead of filing rushed stories and going to cookie-cutter, generic questions that could be asked to anyone at any time in any sport. There's a difference between reporting the news and informing and educating the public, and it's the latter that advances us a society both on a macro level and on smaller scales like the women's hockey world.

There Are No Answers

As much as I'd like to say that we should allow our distinguished storytellers to continue to write exceptional pieces about any number of topics, the business of journalism is preventing that. As Miss Berger wrote, "It's a sad truth that some of our greatest reporters have had to bail out in search of a saner or more impactful job thanks to the new media ecosystem."

I think this is where bloggers and freelancers make an impact, and there should be a push to use them as a resource when the mainstream media wanders into a topic in which they have little experience. I want to be clear in saying that freelancer journalists and bloggers should NOT replace journalists, but should be complementary to the work done by journalists. These writers are free to write and report on a host of topics, and often have the time to do research, seek out interesting topics and people for stories, and can really turn in pieces of writing that contain joy and passion for their subject matter.

Women's hockey has seen a pile of stories written about it lately. Nicole is right: writing the same story over and over isn't more coverage even at its most empirical form. It's going to take effort from both sides to correct this - readers will have to seek better writing and better pieces and, in turn, demand better writing and better pieces from journalists who will be forced to listen to their audiences.

As women's hockey moves to the forefront of the sporting world as it currently is, the best thing that you can do right now is to go and watch games. By watching, you'll gain better insight into the game and will be able to determine which writers you should read and which you should not. Because if the journalism business is all about clicks, the cream will rise to the top through competent, intimate writing.

No click-bait needed.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

**Thanks to Nicole Haase for permission to use her tweets and generating this discussion!**

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