THE DEBATE ON CLICKBAIT PART ONE 

Clickbait – aka “what pageviews are made of” – has become less a trend and more business-as-usual for headline writing both on and off of social media. But what is the cost to your content or the authenticity of your words? Award-winning journalist David Sheets takes on part one of our two-part series, The Debate on Clickbait. (UPDATE: Check out Scott Kolbe’s take on the effect of clickbait on marketing

David Sheets,

Staring at this photo of David Sheets may improve your writing.

By David Sheets

See? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or less, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, and regional director of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Want more? Remember to check out part two of the series here. What happens next will blow your mind.

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