Jaw-Dropping Clickbait

WillieEver since content aggregators on the web began delivering links to original news reported and written by professional outlets for free, journalists and publishers have wrung their hands over the dim future of traditional newspapers. Subscribers have cancelled out, local newspapers have contracted or folded up, weekly news magazines are relics. Everyone expects to read news on the web for free, and despite the obvious problem that absent some form of payment quality content cannot be developed, the readers have largely rejected every attempt to extract money from them. Thank god for clickbait.

“Clickbait” is the perfect term for those ubiquitous ads masquerading as must-read-right-now shocking revelations about celebrities, medications, dogs and cats, secret government programs, little-known looming disasters, anything. A typical clickbait come-on might look like this: “15 things you didn’t know about Elton John’s urologist! #7 will freak you out!”

Because so many news aggregators and fluff peddlers like Yahoo, Gawker, Daily Caller, TMZ and even serious outlets like Fortune rely on by-the-click-fees paid by the advertisers behind clickbait, they are practically impossible to ignore. For awhile, the common clickbait seduction centered around the “one weird trick” phenomenon. “65 year-old shlub loses 25 lbs in 3 days using this one weird trick! Woman buys groceries for 27 cents a week using this one weird trick! Pay off your mortgage in 60 days using this one weird trick!” Eventually, the “one weird trick” trope ran its course and was largely withdrawn from the headline writer’s arsenal.

Lately I’ve noticed that “jaw dropping” has become the tease line on much clickbait. Apparently the thought is that resistance is futile when the subject matter is so astounding that all you can do is stare at it like a slack-jawed nitwit. In reality, based on the several times I checked, most of the material linked to from clickbait is run-of-the-mill stuff, neither shocking nor even obscure. But like the “wet paint” sign that compels people to touch the shiny object, clickbait must work. After all, how can you resist finding out what Marcia Brady looks like now?


Above the Fold: RIP Prince

The multi-talented Prince who died this week at the untimely age of 57 received the ultimate honor in death: an above-the-fold obituary with a photograph on the front page of the New York Times. I was a bit surprised, not because he doesn’t deserve it, but because David Bowie, who was at least if not a more influential artist than Prince, got a front page obit below the fold. I suppose the placement decision is a combination of the importance of competing news on the day of publication, how close to the deadline the subject succumbed, and the whim of the editors.


A few years ago I wrote a blog with dozens of predictions of “above the fold” candidates; I had Bowie penciled in as a long-shot – I guess I was right. Then again, I didn’t have Prince on my list – but maybe I thought he was immortal.

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