In July 2016, the Croydon Advertiser – a 123-year-old newspaper – published two lookalike stories on facing pages. Headlined “13 things you’ll know if you are a Southern rail passenger” and “9 things you didn’t know about Blockbuster” the articles stood out for their striking similarity.
Both articles were an example of an editorial phenomenon more commonly associated with the internet – the “listicle”. A portmanteau of “list” and “article”, listicles are incredibly popular, at the moment, but also controversial. To some, listicles are the inevitable result of cost-cutting – and the listicles below did indeed appear after a newsroom restructure.
Listicles assume the public wants information in quick hits and “prefers mindless fluff and trivia over hard news”. Listicles are far from new – The Ten Commandments anyone? – but traditionally, print journalism has used lists either as a sidebar to other articles or as standalone specials (such as the Sunday Times Rich List). But on sites such as Buzzfeed, such traditional conventions are ignored.
The use of listicles in newspapers demonstrates the shift in the power relations of print and online. These days more journalists work online than in print while online ads more valuable than display advertising. It is also significant because online news is no longer dictated by the conventions of print, but mimics the looser set of conventions born of the internet. Listicles form part of a wider phenomenon of “clickbait” – a pejorative term that describes web content designed to generate advertising revenue, often at the expense of the “traditional journalistic values” of accuracy, balance or fairness.
Clickbait is known for dubious quality – facts are pulled from the web and knocked together by unpaid “contributors” for sites such as The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Upworthy – check out this recent headline and cringe:
More recently, clickbait has made it into the pages of established news organisations. The Independent has been lambasted for resorting to the tactic of late with this head: “Matt LeBlanc: I need to to [sic] get back into watching Game of Thrones … to see Emilia Clarke naked”. Little wonder then, that the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Kathrine Viner, has written that “chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy … undermines the value of journalism”.
The chips are down
A concrete expression of this came in April 2016. One morning someone dropped a bag of fast food on the pavement in the centre of Cheltenham. The Gloucester Echo published a photograph of the rubbish and used it as the basis for a story and an online team updated an incredulous public with a live blog throughout the day. Other papers and websites followed, most notably the Metro, a national free daily.
Fast food must be easy pickings for time-strapped journalists. Trinity Mirror, the paper’s owner, had been here before. In 2013, the Echo’s sister paper, The Gloucester Citizen, ran a story about the “Biggest chip in Gloucestershire” complete with a user-generated image of the admittedly prodigious slice of potato. In Folkestone, meanwhile, The Herald caused a social media sensation with its front-page splash: “Out-of-date-pasty is sold to young mum”.
Discarded fast food and stale pasties are simply not news as generations of reporters have understood it. There is widespread academic consensus – a solitary piece of litter or a big chip or a stale pasty does not conform with any of the news values codified by either Galtung and Ruge or Harcup and O’Neill, whose work on news values is generally accepted as the gold standard for journalists.
Can we expect more? You bet. Regionals across the land are using ever more content written by amateurs to fill newspapers left chronically understaffed by rounds of job losses. In 2013, Johnson Press relaunched its Lincolnshire regional, The Bourne Local, as a “people’s paper” featuring up to 75% content from locals – unpaid of course. More recently, Trinity Mirror “transformed” its regional titles into “digitally-led news publications” and further job cuts followed. Surviving journalists were told to produce live blogs – everything from fascist marches to the opening of a branch of KFC. The Wolverhampton-based Express & Star, the biggest regional newspaper outside London has established a “user-generated content desk” to take further contributions from the public.
Fewer journalists, fewer scoops, fewer hard questions, less topicality and weaker attribution. It all contributes to the falling credibility of Britain’s regional papers. The idea of a critical or rational press so clearly defined by Jurgen Habermas cannot, surely, be consistent with editorial policy that counts generating clickbait as part of its schedule. And so, we see more listicles, more user-generated content and more stories without any recognisable news value.
But there’s hope…
Don’t despair. Print is flourishing where skillful journalism is ring-fenced and professional work encouraged to a high standard. In 2015, The Spectator celebrated a 188-year circulation high while subscriptions to The Economist have risen and Private Eye reached a 30-year high in circulation – it restricts publication of its content online.
But regionals took another road, opting to give content away in the hope of clicks, while newsroom restructures have created further commercial pressures on the remaining journalists to produce quick copy – leading to the promotion of cheap listicles of the type popular in the Croydon Advertiser.
Incidentally, “13 things you’ll know if you are a Southern rail passenger” wasn’t confined to the Croydon Advertiser. It appeared in the Crawley News and Surrey Mirror. The story wasn’t even original, a similar listicle appeared a week before, on Cosmopolitan.com – which managed not just 13 things about Southern, but 23.
Sadly, given the state of revenues in the news industry, we can expect more lookalike listicles appearing in the regional press as the same bleak certainty that a rail passenger in the south of England awaits delays.
This is an edited extract from Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the slow death of print? to be published by Abramis Academic Publishing in January 2017