By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum

From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”


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  1. is exactly why I want to do Acta Magazine ( Everyone I have talked to actually wants to be told what to do at the end of a story or at least given some options. And there are lots of topics that are more like hurricanes and less like political issues (though I plan to cover some of those as well). In any event, I’ve got a little money raised, some writers lined up and I’ll hopefully launch sometime this year or early 2015. I’m thrilled that this is an issue that’s being talked about.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Anna: After the session, several of us — mostly former Phoenix people — were musing that that’s *exactly* the kind of advocacy journalism that alt-weeklies used to do (and some still do). And yet the Phoenix died. I think one of the problems was a major disconnect between the public service journalism we were doing and the funding model.

      • Very likely. I have some ideas in that area. I don’t think they are terribly imaginative, but I don’t know that anypne has tried it other than Ryot and my idea is a bit different. Stay tuned. When I launch, I will expect every new media pundit to cover it and that includes you 😉

  2. Aaron Read

    I work for an NPR station and I get into spirited but cordial disagreements with my GM (a former news producer) and my news director all the time about this. I firmly believe that if you don’t tell people how to care about the news they’re hearing, you can’t expect them to care about the station giving them the news when it comes to pledge week.

    They come from “thou shalt be objective at all times in your coverage” camp of, well, call it “traditional” journalism for lack of a better word.

    Mind you, its’ an extremely valid viewpoint. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Especially because the role of advocacy journalism has been (for the most part) not just telling people HOW to do something, but telling them expressly WHAT to do.

    I agree 100% that the latter has no place in an objective news organization. And preserving that objectivity is very, very important when you’re selling yourself as a respectable news organization. That reputation is all you have when it comes to pledge week (and to convincing businesses to buy underwriting/advertising, too).

    But dammit, is it really that hard to devote 10% of a story, almost ANY story, telling people in a non-encouraging, non-partisan way to get involved? Sure in broadcasting maybe it’s too complicated to explain in scant few minutes and only with the spoken word, but that’s what a website is for!

    • Aaron, I feel the same way! I hope you will check out Acta ( once I launch.

      I also think that if you’re asking people to pay for news that they technically don’t need (we may hate to admit it, but it’s true), then there has to be a compelling reason. It has always frustrated me to no end that news organizations don’t do more to grow their audiences. They just put stuff out there hoping it will be consumed and attention will be paid. That’s just not how it works.

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