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Real horror: Paid-for journalism, clickbait bounties

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” — Stephen King

I was born on Friday the 13th. Whenever my birthday has fallen on that mystical night, I’ve celebrated whenever possible with a marathon of old horror flicks, especially the slashers: “Friday the 13th” (of course), “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Halloween,” “Hellraiser.”

I’ve grown accustomed to horror, but two recent stories have me shivering under my blankets.

First, a dispatch from the New York Times — which was tipped off by a story from the Lansing State Journal’s Carol Thompson — identified 1,300 websites around the country that look like genuine local news sites but actually are political operations populated by stories from desperate freelance journalists paid to write hit jobs (read the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/y4wjc7dh).

Then came a story from the Sacramento Business Journal about McClatchy’s efforts to tie reporter pay to the number of page views reporters generate (https://tinyurl.com/y2zv2hnb).

Masked men with machetes hiding under your bed is one thing, but those two stories are far scarier, because they have long-lasting implications on the integrity of the free press in this country.

I spent most of my career working for Gannett, the McLean, Virginia-based owner of USA Today, the Detroit Free Press, the Lansing State Journal, the Battle Creek Enquirer, and dozens of other publications around the country. Gannett’s papers put together some of the best in American journalism, and the resources of a major media conglomerate come in handy.

As far as I know, I was never denied a raise or promotion because my Web traffic was too low. But I soured on the company a few years ago when, during a 90-minute corporate virtual “town hall,” the only person who even mentioned the word “journalism” was the corporate lawyer.

Instead, the big-wigs in McLean talked about “customers,” “consumers,” and “users,” which only reminded me of the monthly reports I had to fill out, telling my editors about my stories’ Web traffic, how many Twitter followers I had, how many Facebook likes I received. Nowhere on those forms could I mark the stories that led to bills being introduced in the statehouse or to the termination of corrupt officials.

Now, I’m smart and pragmatic enough to understand newspapers are a business, and we newsroom folks can’t do our jobs — informing the public, holding the powerful to account — if the good folks in our advertising and circulation departments don’t bring in enough money to keep the lights on.

But I’ve always thought newspaper companies spent too much time trying to force the mission to fit the business model, instead of the other way around.

Page-view obsession doesn’t necessarily produce bad journalism. My most-read-ever story was a hard-hitting piece on sex trafficking.

But you might end up ignoring impactful stories.

Some of my least-read series of stories, for example, covered an obscure bit of boilerplate language in a state budget that would have privatized health care for some of the most vulnerable Michiganders. The stories were not big hits online, but they informed the affected population, who showed up at the statehouse to express their displeasure and forced the Rick Snyder administration to try to develop a compromise.

If my pay was linked directly to how many times my headlines were clicked on, I might have ignored those stories, and all of those people might never have gotten the chance to have their say.

It’s not a good business model, anyway. Newspapers have been chasing page views for years, and still thousands of good journalists have been kicked to the curb. First went the higher-paid vets with all their experience and expertise, and then the young, hungry up-and-comers with their heavy college debt.

With all of those out-of-work journalists sitting out there, I imagine it hasn’t been hard for those shadowy political organizations to find writers willing to turn out copy for any kind of paycheck. Shame on those reporters for abandoning their principles, but I understand the impulse.

In Lansing, whenever I’d get worked up about the page view obsession, my editor would soothe my wounded idealism by saying, “If there are 100 good stories out there you could be writing, why not write the one that people are going to read?”

That makes sense, in a way. Being mindful of traffic doesn’t mean you have to write clickbait about kittens playing the piano every day. No newspaper has the resources to write all of the legitimately meaningful stories, so chasing the ones that register with readers isn’t sacrilegious — so long as the page view is a guide, not a mandate, and it’s paired with journalistic instinct for what readers need to know.

We look at page views here in Alpena, but only as one tool to help us figure out which stories are worth more of our time and which ones can be relegated to roundups of local government or school board actions or police blotter. And, as long as I’m sitting in this seat, we will never give up the important stuff — see today’s front-page story on county finances as an example — for the sake of Web traffic.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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