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pi magazine 713 | features


a complete write-off?

Alys Bannister looks at the impact of listicles and “clickbait” on modern journalism


ith the ever-increasing popularity of sites like Buzzfeed, listicles and “clickbait” have become a ubiquitous part of digital journalism, but I can’t help but wonder whether they’re killing the art of writing. Is the concept of news really morphing from thought-provoking commentaries to “Which One of Zayn Malik’s Tattoos Are You?”

If people prefer to read lists of “The 20 Best Avocado Toast Pictures of 2015”, is it actually the editor’s fault, or are they just catering to a demand?

According to the content-marketing tool BuzzSumo, in 2014, online articles with 1000 words or less outnumbered those with 2000 words or more 16 to one. A recent study from Chartbeat, a web analytics company, also found that about 55 per cent of readers now spend less than 15 seconds on an online article, a possible sign of the dwindling attention spans of today’s readers. In a world where we swipe away anything which doesn’t captivate us at first sight, has journalism become victim of our society’s obsession with instant gratification?

Much like the rest of our culture, another issue common to list articles is the fixation on the individual – they’re often not a commentary on the outside world, but a discussion of ourselves. With the most popular listicles on Thoughtcatalog, for example, being concerned with “50 Things You Need to do for a Relationship to Last” or “How to ruin your life (without noticing that you are)”, do readers now look to journalists to examine themselves, rather than the outside world? Have we lost that much sense in ourselves that we require articles to dictate how we live our lives?

Eleanor Ross, a travel editor and freelance journalist for publications like The Financial Times, The Guardian, and The Independent, says that list articles are “everywhere”, explaining that she once pitched a piece on travelling Italy, which her editor loved, but was only willing to publish it if it was in list form. This is a common story. Editors of respected publications are now pushing for shorter, more accessible articles due to the growing demand for bite-sized news and entertainment.

Ironically enough, these articles and quizzes have done the very opposite of what individualism promotes – they actually compartmentalise people, narrowly defining them in terms of film characters and personality types.

“It makes my heart sink”, Ross says, “My job is made redundant. Everything you’ve trained to do as a writer is thrown back in your face.” She claims the demand for listicles and other easily digestible news is due to “editors cashing in on people’s ADD”. With online tools like Omniture measuring the average time spent on each article, publications are becoming increasingly concerned with grabbing readers’ attention before they click onto another story. More website traffic also allows companies to charge higher rates for advertisements. So, in one sense, journalism has become increasingly about likes and shares, like social media. More clicks means more revenue. In Ross’s experience: “If a piece isn’t easy clickbait, editors shy away from it.”

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“I hate myself for publishing these things, but it’s my bread and butter”, Ross says while sighing. Journalists can’t bite the hand that feeds them.

Among the lacklustre lists and vaguely amusing videos of drunk guys sliding down tube escalators, are there any benefits of this new type of journalism? The answer is yes. Even Ross admits that listicles can make the writing process enjoyable. The new demand for instant entertainment means that journalists are challenged to find a new way to attract more people. Ross also believes that the domination of lists doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the appetite for important world news. Some newspapers, in particular The Guardian and The New York Times, have risen to the challenge of this new form of reporting, catering news reports towards a wider demographic. Take for example a listicle on The Guardian entitled “Truth bombs: eight alternatives to airstrikes on ISIS” which proved to be one of the most popular articles the website published in 2015. Turning

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Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...

Pi Magazine, Issue 713 - Re:Generation  

Our third issue of 2015-16 explores our generation of millennial, and our collective identity. Why is our generation the way it is - what ex...