Clickbait won’t help local newspaper business models, building communities will

A few weeks ago, a disgruntled newspaper journalist said to me “the rationale seems to be ‘why bother doing your USP well, when you can do the ubiquitous badly?’” It’s a question many journalists of my acquaintance have been struggling with. I’m sure they would sympathise with Gareth Davies, Chief Reporter at the Croydon Advertiser, who publicly vented his fury on Twitter after fellow Local World website, the Maidstone & Medway News, ran a story on the celebrity nude photo hacking scandal.

I’m sure most people would agree this isn’t a story of immediate relevance to the Maidstone & Medway area, and many journalists of my acquaintance are queasy to say the least about the proliferation of ‘clickbait’. The website’s editor, Simon Finlay, defended the decision, saying “we’re trying to drive an audience to our site… [these stories] do get us thousands of hits and that’s a good thing.”

If anything, this reflects the desperation for audience growth within the media (and not just in local press). But the more I talk to Heads of Digital throughout the sector, the more I appreciate that hits alone aren’t enough to develop newspaper business models. These stories may be attracting thousands of users, but how many of those people are bothering to look at any of the other pages on the site or come back at a later date?

Most publishers would argue that, if these stories make money, then they justify themselves. If they also subsidise less profitable areas of the site, and allow titles to continue to publish genuine local-interest journalism, then much the better. But is the audience they attract of any real commercial value?

To use a deliberately preposterous example, I’m sure the FT could attract thousands of users by publishing a load of stories on, say, the Jennifer Lawrence photo hack. But it wouldn’t do their brand any favours. And in any case, the vast majority of those eyeballs are virtually useless to advertisers looking to reach, say, the wealth management industry. And if you’re the owner of a restaurant in Maidenhead, why do you care if thousands of people in Birmingham or Manchester are hitting the site via social media? A brief spike in national readership isn’t of much tangible use to local advertisers.

Instead of chasing hits for the sake of hits, local media websites need to spend more time thinking about how they create engaged communities of readers within their immediate catchment area, and how best to help local businesses reach those people. That’s where the real, sustainable revenue growth will come from.