On Tuesday, journalism news site The Raw Story published an article by Eric W. Dolan that carried the headline, “Study concludes: ‘Journalism — to some extent — is twerking.” When the article popped up during a Google search, I raised an eyebrow and poked fun at it on my Facebook page — then clicked through and read the article.
The article focuses on a study published in April in New Media and Society by Edson C. Tandoc Jr. of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, who writes:
‘In order to attract an audience no longer loyal to legacy news, journalism dances in a provocative manner — publishing stories about the wildest celebrities, uploading adorable cat videos, highlighting salacious headlines — hoping to attract attention, to increase traffic. … Journalism — to some extent — is twerking.’
Through interviews and observation, Tandoc studied how journalists in three major newsrooms made news decisions that were often based on analytics and other user feedback mechanisms. His study relays anecdotes of a managing editor who “compared using web analytics with getting hooked on drugs,” web editors who put words like “bra” and “vagina” in headlines to attract traffic, and editors who defined a job well done as a story that got good traffic.
Analytics can be a great and powerful tool for journalists. I have used them in the newsroom to make decisions such as which stories to leave on the front page and which ones to move, which stories to repost on social media and which stories to assign follow-ups for. On my own blog, I have used them to learn what kinds of stories work and what I should consider writing more about.
In this web-based media environment, where we need to get eyes on ads to help us stay afloat, it would be unwise to ignore analytics; and if our goal is to serve readers, it is good to use whatever means we have to figure out how we can do that better.
But I have long been wary of catering too much to analytics and letting them outweigh “real” news judgment. I hope that we can exercise caution while using them and keep them as a factor in our decisions, not the factor.
If we learn that readers are interested in reading about fire hazards in town, we should, by all means, use that as a motivator to do more reporting on fire hazards. If we learn that readers enjoy stories about other people’s dogs, we can think about doing a few more dog stories, but we shouldn’t turn into a cute-animal-focused pet news site.
If we know that writing punchy headlines with strong verbs and puns and proper nouns gets us more clicks, we can try to write those — that’s good headline technique anyway — but we should be wary of turning into clickbait-headline writers. There’s a difference in writing headlines that draw clicks because they’re interesting and writing headlines that draw clicks because they’re ridiculous.
The Raw Story and I perfectly illustrated Tandoc’s point. Of all the studies in that month’s New Media and Society, I don’t know if Tandoc’s was highlighted by The Raw Story because it was the best study or because it was the most clickworthy. There’s nothing that novel about the fact that journalists are making decisions based on analytics, but there is novelty to someone comparing that phenomenon to twerking, and there’s potential for web traffic there, too, given our fascination with Miley. I fell prey to it myself.
And I’m perpetuating it myself, too, by writing about it here. Was this study the most important thing published about online journalism this week? Probably not. But I saw it and thought it was interesting, and I shared it with my friends in hopes of drawing a few Facebook “likes,” and I might even get a few clicks on the blog about it. I promise you a follow-up post if I do.
So, journalistic “twerking” is something that works, on some level, and in a financially unsteady media environment, we can’t scoff too hard at things that work. But is that really what we want to do? Do we want to get clicks because of our (occasionally terrible) dancing or because of our quality writing? It’s a decision every newsroom will need to make for itself. Personally, I hope to keep my work — after this post! — a twerk-free zone.