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Ex-President reveals the secrets of his success

By Ian Morris
18 March 2021

By Ian Morris

Clickbait. You’ve just fallen for it. A catchy, sensational and often misleading headline designed to entice readers to follow a link to a piece of online content.  My apologies for the deceit (though I will be checking this week’s newsletter article ‘opens’ with particular interest).

Clickbait is, as most of us have known for a long time, pretty grubby stuff. So it came as a surprise to read in The Guardian earlier this week that the “Daily Telegraph plans to link journalists’ pay with article popularity”. The article alleges that an email sent to staff by the Telegraph’s editor, Chris Evans, outlined “that ‘in due course’ the outlet wants to use its ‘Stars’ system, which scores stories published online according to factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get, ‘to link performance to reward’ using subscription data.”

The Guardian report suggests that the plan has “alarmed and dismayed” Telegraph staff who fear it will “seriously warp our editorial priorities”.

Naturally, it caused uproar on Twitter, helped along by some one-line tweets with zero nuance or detail. Anyone following the twitter debate would have thought the Telegraph planned to become the home of “20 stunning images that will change your life” and “The pictures celebrities tried to keep secret.”

Of course, taking what you read on Twitter at face value is fraught with danger. Reading The Guardian is usually much safer ground, but the story is framed a little mischievously.

Careful reading of the article doesn’t offer a great deal of evidence that the Telegraph’s plans are linked to article popularity as its headline suggests. The direct quotes from Evans’ email raise the prospect that “those who attract and retain the most subscribers should be the most handsomely paid,” but that working out the details would be “complicated” so “we’re not ready to do that … yet”.

The email talks about attracting and retaining subscribers. That is in no way the same thing as attracting traffic, which is typically the goal of an advertising-based model.

The Guardian article, when referring to the Telegraph’s Stars system, refers to it scoring online stories by factors such as how many subscriptions they drive and how many clicks they get. True, but according to Press Gazette, the system uses “about a dozen different metrics about each article including subscriber conversion, subscriber retention, and engagement with new readers and registered readers.” The Telegraph’s deputy editor told Press Gazette that Stars does the opposite of encouraging clickbait, saying “Stars are not about clicks, they are about subscriber satisfaction.”

Clearly if systems like this are misused, they will incentivise the opposite of quality journalism, which is a recipe for disaster and would rightly lead to the kind of “mutinous” mood described by one staff member in The Guardian piece. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

News outlets have been in an existential crisis for years. In their battle to survive, of course they need to understand what kind of articles drive what kind of reader behaviour. Of course, they want to ensure that journalists present stories in a way that hold the interest of their audience. This is the commercial reality of media in the digital age.

But automatically assuming that this kind of data analysis, within a subscription-based model, is going to lead to a dumbing down of journalism, or journalist performance being evaluated on the basis of article popularity alone, is a seriously flawed argument.

At least I certainly hope so, because in an era of increasing disinformation we need a media sector where journalists are motivated do proper journalism and where the highest editorial standards prevail.