Junkfood Journalism: Why We Get Exactly The Media We Ask For And What To Do About It

There’s nothing new in complaints that journalism has died a slow, inexorable death since the days of great newspapers, intellectually sharp periodicals, and newscasters who brought wisdom and gravitas to their broadcasts. Culture bemoans the passing of those glory days, as media critics and the viewing, reading and listening public denounce most news and media coverage as cesspools of hacks plagiarizing each other, sensationalizing even the most banal of stories, and often getting facts wrong in the rush to get the “get” or beat the deadline.

And all that’s true… well, sometimes and in some cases. Particularly the sensationalizing part. But as someone who’s now been a media writer (how that differs from “journalist” I don’t know but I’ll take the lesser label in a nod to humility) for several years, much has become clear to me about how and why we got to this point. I’d like to take a minute to spell it out, at least from my point of view, and hopefully illuminate whose fault it is.

It’s yours, dear readers; your fault. You are to blame. Oh, I know you had nothing to do with Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post, the fact that The New York Times is struggling to sell ad space or the Chicago Sun Times recently layed off all its full-time photographers. I’m aware you had no vote in choosing the cover of the Rolling Stone or pushing for the demise of Newsweek as an ink & paper magazine. Certainly you aren’t responsible for wrangling advertisers or selling souls to keep staff paid at online media companies. But you are the demand part of the supply/demand equation and it’s because of what you’ve demanded – gauged by what you buy, read or comment on – that has determined the direction of media in our 2.0 world.

And what you’ve demanded – the majority of you, anyway – are stories about celebrity weight gain, idiotic politicians, ever-more evil criminals, persistent racists, inexhaustible homophobes, wildly divergent religious nuts and… well, you know what you’ve demanded. And being slavishly devoted to the Almighty Demand that attracts the Almighty Advertisers which results in the Almighty Dollar, media sources in the 2.0 world are more than happy to supply that demand. Well… maybe not happy, but they’re doing it.

And the reason the media knows what you want? For rags like the Weekly World News, it’s how many rags you buy. For online journalism? By the sheer click of your keyboard to open a story. That one little seemingly benign click is a dead giveaway to the bean-counters of online media. And newspapers, media sites, magazines and political blogs are all paying rapt attention to just what you click on because the click is currency.

Back in pre-Internet days, a newspaper’s fortunes were determined by two elements: subscribers and advertisers. The more subscribers, the more attraction to advertisers; the more advertisers, the more money to pay reporters to provide that deeper, pithier coverage oldsters remember. It was a symbiotic and tenuous relationship that drove many a newspaper publisher crazy, but the value of the subscriber was not to be minimized.

However, in those pre-Internet days, publishers didn’t necessarily know what subscribers actually read on any given day. Yes, there were “Letters to the Editor” to reflect some response, but only few of those could be printed and, human nature being what it is, only the most outspoken took the time to actually write; clearly no scientific gauge of interest. Publishers and editors were inspired to be meaningful (Pulitzers were always nice), and burdened to pick the most important – but also the most attention-getting – stories for “above the fold.” If they got it wrong, fewer newspapers sold, dampening subscriber and advertiser interest, trickling down to economic tension. It was a business model built on the fragile anticipation of how best to present news and anticipate readership.

Then along came the Internet… and, as with so many other industries, everything changed, witnessed by the demise of countless fine newspapers and periodicals that had once been chroniclers of our life and times. While a few ink and paper sources remain, what we’ve got now is a glut of Internet media that represents the online versions of the New York Times, the Washington Post or any of the other extant big-city newspapers; the online arms of radio and TV stations; political, news and cultural media sites; bloggers – known and unknown – and every kind of site related to media you can possibly imagine. AND ALL ARE COMPETING FOR YOUR CLICKS.

Because, just as as subscriptions used to telegraph reader interest and loyalty, now it’s clicks. Every media site – large or small, The Huffington Post to Addicting Info to that blogger your friend turned you onto –  is competing for clicks. The click that happens when an online reader opens an article. They don’t have to read it, they don’t have to comment on it; all they’ve got to do is click it open and their “vote” has been registered. Those clicks tell advertisers that readers have gone to the page where their ads are placed, which encourages them to keep paying for that ad space. Those clicks tells Google, or whichever ad algorithm is being used, that readers have clicked on the page where they’ve sold space, which activates a mechanism for them to pay money to that media site for its clicks. The click tells a site which stories, which writers, are most popular, and those writers (and, yes, their less popular counterparts) get paid per click.

The click, therefore, is the trigger of success; the all-important gauge of reader interest.

And how do you get those clicks? You have to grab the reader’s attention with everything in your arsenal: sensationalized stories, attention-getting headlines, fear-mongering editorials, compelling photographs, provocative quotes; you focus on the most buzz-worthy aspect of any piece of news and pick stories that translate as urgent, salacious, can’t-look-away must-reads. Those are the stories that get the most clicks… hence, those are the stories that glut every news site online (and off). When even the higher profile sites like The Huffington Post, Salon and The Daily Beast run stories about orgasms, excrement, misbehaving celebrities, and who’s got side-boob problems, you know we’re all beholden to the mighty click. When headlines are purposely broad, base, and dripping with sensationalism (often times unrelated to the actual story they’re titling), you know we’re all beholden to the click. When publishers push trivial but prurient pieces over more meaningful but less exotic fare, we are all, very much, beholden to the click.

For writers, the formula is truly a deal with the devil. You need to make a living, you want to pick pieces that have the potential for high readership; you hope to “go viral” with something that catches fire, but you have your credibility as a writer to consider as well. So you throw in a few of the more didactic, literary, meaningful pieces to keep your journalistic cred intact, but it’s understood those are for prestige, not clicks… ’cause they ain’t gonna get any! If you get too squeamish about the smut, and turn down too many of the extreme, salacious, horrifying, incendiary stories, the other writers will take them and walk away with the “click load” of the day. And the writers with no compunction about journalistic cred? They rush to cover the latest shooting, the most grisly deaths, the biggest idiots doing the most idiotic things, and they cash out… while your Nelson Mandela piece, the moving article on roadside memorials, or that thoroughly researched post on the Arctic thud at the bottom of the list. Regardless of the urge to cover those stories, you know they won’t garner anywhere near the clicks as one about a baby being raped to death by a her mother’s sociopathic boyfriend. Like I said; it’s a deal with the devil.

A few colleagues shared some thoughts on the dilemma we online writers face. One, a male writer with a big following in liberal politics, said he occasionally has to write something literary and academic because the survival of his soul demands it… but he’s clear his bread and butter is in snark and sensationalism. Another spoke of her queasiness at making such big numbers on the aforementioned raped baby story when she’d rather be covering something more uplifting. Some writers get discouraged when their well-analyzed pieces on important issues tank while shallower, less researched ‘snap pieces” bring in the big numbers. See… it’s all about you readers.

Frankly, it’s the TMZ formula: prurience, gossip, snark; anything with the word “butt” – they cover those stories repetitively and persistently because readers click on them in such big numbers the demand is clear. And every media site is clamoring for numbers like TMZ.

Case in point: after a couple of years of doing this, I got into a discussion with an editor friend of mine who insisted that “good news stories” did well, “happy” pieces can catch fire, and inspirational themes could capture solid readership. I’m sure they can, I retorted… every once in a blue moon. In truer fact, I countered, the bulk of readers could care less about ‘good news.’ No matter how much they complain about sensationalism and salaciousness, they are, in fact, more likely to click on stories covering the spectrum of ‘evil-doing’ in politics, entertainment, religion, crime, and general life than pieces about heroes, winners and do-gooders. Proof?

It was the end of the year; the typical retrospectives were in order and I was set to write a “best and worst people of 2012” piece for Addicting Info. In a flash of brilliance, I realized this could be the perfect test for my theory: instead of combining the lists in one piece, I wrote two: The 10 Best People of 2012 and The 10 Worst People of 2012. Both were published at the same time, both started at top position on the site’s home page; both had compelling photographs appropriate for their theme; both were promoted equally. And in just the first days in which I was able to check the stats, the Worst article received almost 40,000 clicks; the Best… you already guessed it… less than 3000. While clearly not scientific, it made the point.

We get sensationalized, salacious, bad news journalism as a steady diet because that’s what readers demand by virtue of what they’re clicking. Or buying. Or reading. 

So my advice for those of you who want something better? DON’T CLICK ON THAT STORY ABOUT LINDSAY LOHAN. Don’t pick up that ridiculous tabloid about Hillary’s ‘alien baby.’ Don’t fall for the purposely ensnaring headlines, particularly ones about someone’s sexual habits, weight gain, bad cosmetic surgery, failing movie, stupid political comments, insane acts of self-sabotage, or latest bad affair. Pick and choose your real life crime dramas, presume the Westboro Baptist Church and Rush Limbaugh have been amply covered, and don’t be afraid to not read every single story about Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter. DO click on pieces about companies implementing health coverage for their employees, the lunacy of Confederate history month, anti-women myths that need debunking, the Herzog PSA about texting and driving and non-profit groups that shouldn’t get tax-exempt status. Enjoy good snark, witty commentary, sharp satire and inspirational think pieces. And get over the misconception that thoughtful, meaningful stories are too ponderous for online reading. Yes, the depth might be different but the word counts tend to be the same. And let’s make this very clear: the more you succumb to junkfood journalism, the more it will be fed to you. It’s that simple. They’re counting your clicks.

The future of journalism is in your hands… click wisely.

LDW w glasses

Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

12 thoughts on “Junkfood Journalism: Why We Get Exactly The Media We Ask For And What To Do About It

  1. batrania s.

    SO TRUE. All of it. But I didn’t know about the clicking thing so I’ll be more careful. Don’t want my momentary curiosity on some stupid story to contribute to the bullshit. Thanks!


    1. Thanks, Batrania. I’m sure for the larger sites and papers the bigger name writers simply get paid by company capital, but yes, for the rest, those clicks are gold. Amazing but even I have begun NOT clicking on things I might have before. Feels like one small step, right? LDW


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  3. J. Hunterson

    Cannot believe where journalism has fallen. You go and spend time reading places that are holding out for the good stuff and you know it can still be done. I call bullshit on any site or paper that succumbs to printing crap for the sake of a click, as you say. Maybe that’s the new way, but it lacks integrity. Alert for all sorts of journalistic disasters to come.


    1. I don’t necessarily disagree with you, J., but I’ve learned it’s about doing what you can do within a paradigm you can’t control. LDW


  4. jp

    You got it. Pretty much what I always say. More crap out there than good stuff and oh it’s so tempting to click on the stupid shit but I just won’t for exactly the reasons you state.


    1. Same here. Sometimes I stop myself just as I’m about to hit it and remind myself that my one little click might just be the damn reason we’ll get yet another story about Miley Cyrus. NO MORE, PLEASE!! 🙂 LDW


  5. rick p

    To be honest with you, I like the mix. If I wanted dry news I could pick up the Wall Street Journal. I like the variety on news websites so I click away. Different strokes.


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