Last week, headline “Samsung lied—its smart TV is indeed spying on you and it is doing nothing to stop that“, piqued my interest. In the preceding days, the InterWebs flooded with allegations that the South Korean manufacturer’s televisions listen to their owners. But I cringed reading the story, which appeared on BetaNews, where I also contribute. The reporting doesn’t support the headline, which if editor on duty I would never have permitted.
Editorially, BetaNews and I drift apart. My responsibility for day-to-day management ended in May 2013. I told one of the writer/editors yesterday, in context of discussing the Samsung headline: “No offense, but the story packaging is more like a blog everyday…Real stories have real reporting. Too many of the BN stories rely on someone else’s reporting. That’s primarily my saying feels more like a blog. The Samsung lied story is good example”.
BN editorial structure is more diversified now, with several writers acting as day or night editors. All contributors share in common something I detest: Pay by pageviews. The model is widespread among blogs and news sites, and I oppose it. There is inherent conflict of interest, when the reporter’s livelihood directly ties to clicks.
When Headlines Lie
I do not write for pageviews. Ever. It’s the major reason news reporting no longer supports my family, although I wish that it did. My headlines are aggressive, present, and provocative, but the style goes back to the print era. My objective is reads. Good headlines grab attention, leading people to stop and read (listen or watch). Readers’ reward: Something that is first-hand reported, rather than being presented with repeated hearsay. There is art and science to good headline writing, but in the pageview-grazed, blogger-obsessed online environs abuse is common. I lay out the whys and hows in November 2014 analysis “What is Clickbait?”
Hed to the Samsung lied story is egregious and irresponsible. As I told the editor responsible for story last week in Google Hangouts: “The headline does not support the assertion Samsung lied. Not even close…Samsung wasn’t given opportunity to respond…Accusing companies of lying opens up potential legal backlash…The reporting must be solid”.
The editor expressed his misgivings about the headline, but noted that the writer produced a screenshot from researchers. I responded: “Researchers he didn’t speak to. No other experts consulted. And no direct response from Samsung”.
I strongly considered writing this post hours after reading the story. But Manish Singh is a fairly new BetaNews writer, with whom I have had little contact. I didn’t want to squash his enthusiasm, and my problem is more with the editor approving the headline. But late yesterday, after discussing the story with Manish, the editor encouraged me to write this criticism.
Overly-sensationalized headlines topping aggregated content is all too commonplace. My March 2010 post “The Difference Between Blogging and Journalism” lays out the problem with respect to first-hand sourcing, of which there is too little online today. If Manish’s reporting was original, and he had spoken to the sources, the aggressive and provoking headline would get my approval. But by citing third parties and alleging something his story doesn’t support, the “Samsung lied” accusation headline should never have been.
Pay for Results
BetaNews editors and writers, like so many others around blogs and news sites, want to get paid for their work. That’s understandable. But by tying pay to pageviews, rather than other performance metrics, writers are encouraged to sensationalize for clicks. As expressed earlier, the compensation method is inherently conflicted. Rewards actually discourage responsible reporting, which often takes time.
Another Manish story, which led nowhere, is good example. His editor told me about Manish’s efforts to get official comment about Lenovo and the so-called Superfish spyware. He waited a full work day for Microsoft’s canned and essentially useless response, which led to the story being scrapped. That is every public relation’s response goal: Delay and destroy. The writer won’t be paid, because the story never published for lack of information he and the editor deemed necessary. The result discourages future efforts to get the quote, when rumors and sensationalism deliver paying pageviews. You can work for nothing, or produce something that pays.
BTW, the typical PR stalling tactic is archaic. If blogs and news sites will publish rumors or hearsay anyway, getting in front of the torrent is more sensible public relations. Stalling and canned responses stops the few but not the many.
As I look at how BetaNews is changing, with more writers responsible for editing, headlines are more sensational and less reporting is original. They want to get paid for their writing and compete against popular blogs which command greater reach. That said, BN still produces lots of valuable news, but the trend nevertheless is clear.
I would like to see the news industry shift away from the pay-for-pageviews model—to something that encourages responsible reporting and building legitimate audience. Every writer should be salaried, but that’s fantasy given the reality of news gathering today. This instead: Pay like bartenders and waiters/waitresses. All writers receive the same base salary. How much more they earn depends on tips. Companies can provide online tip boxes to which readers contribute (per story or ongoing basis). Meanwhile, reporters are tipped by employers for their legitimate, originally sourced scoops.
The editorial measure for pay should be scoops and original content not pageviews. The approach could:
- Build, or rebuild, audience trust
- Generate more legitimate news content
- Reduce the amount of frivolous commentary
- Encourage time necessary to report responsibly
- Give publishers power to reset how advertising is valued
There are too many know-it-all talking heads online today. Blogs and news sites encourage them in their endless quest to feed content to drive pageviews that lift ad rates. Then there is the aforementioned quest for ever-more sensational stories. Uh-oh, editors are just as conflicted as writers, when the separation of Church and State—that is editorial and advertising—diminishes, or even disintegrates.
More content is less for all. The current ad-based, pageview model is broken. There is too much content, and not enough advertising to support it. The starting point is changing the compensation model to something that is in line with the Fourth Estate’s editorial agenda, which is to serve the public trust. Serving pageviews is servitude.
Stop the madness!
Photo Credit: Rob Best