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11 March 2022

Why clickbait journalism backfires on local papers

Reach's traffic targets cut papers off from the communities they serve.

By James Ball

The typical clickbait headline might not be the stuff of Woodward and Bernstein, but it is surely familiar to almost all of us — news outlets are full of stories like that for the simple reason that they do well on Google and other search engines, and thus generate traffic.

Reach — one of the UK’s biggest newspaper publishers, behind the Mirror, Express and hundreds of local titles — relies on such articles for its revenue, thanks to the digital adverts served alongside the regurgitated content. So determined is Reach to increase these traffic numbers that it is setting individual traffic targets for all of its journalists: a minimum number of page views they must achieve, with requirements on those underperforming to do more to increase their numbers or face unspecified repercussions.

Targets aren’t necessarily bad or villainous — many publications have team targets for traffic — but when local journalism is in crisis, such targets may feel misguided. Local papers often jump to the top of Google’s results for stories that could run anywhere. They have no relevance or tie to the community the paper ostensibly serves. For example, a local reporter might luck out on a big traffic hit if their version of “What time is Strictly on tonight?” happens to top Google, but those visiting will largely come from nowhere near the local area of the paper, will take absolutely no notice of which site they happen to be on and will not return again. A journalist who is worried about their traffic targets could face the decision about whether to write up a meeting of the town council’s planning committee about a major new housing development — of huge interest to actual local readers — or whether to write up a Twitter fight that could get higher national traffic.

The interests of actually providing local people with information they need on issues they care about — which could drive a loyal, regular and hopefully eventually paying audience — are in direct competition with crude traffic targets. Should Reach’s policy be taken to extreme lengths, eventually some executive would notice that instead of dozens of distinct, local sites, it merely has sites with the same repetitive content and almost nothing different across them — “local” newspapers in name only.

There is nothing wrong with wanting revenue or wanting to make profits. But to just try to drive traffic from anywhere with crude individual targets is to further hollow out local news, just when local papers need reinforcement. Putting a geographical limit on targets, or prioritising repeat visits, or even registrations, would create better incentives for reporters and surely could be the start of putting papers on a better financial footing, less reliant on the online ad world — which is dominated by tech that receive the lion’s share of the profit. That would be good for journalism, good for business and good for communities.

As it stands, Reach risks knowing the ad rate of everything, but the value of nothing.

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