Beyond clickonomics

From the days of the ”yellow press” to the clickbait and fake news of the 21st century – journalism has come far, but retains a complex relationship with attention, propaganda, and advertising. But will modern ’clickonomics’ really be a sustainable and reliable way to fund media operations in the long run – and if not, what sort of systems might take its place? What has changed in the world of media, and what changes might we expect in the future? And what will the journalist of the future really be like?

The first newspapers (at least in the modern sense) began seeing publication as early as the 17th century, but it wouldn’t be until the 19th that the medium really took off – owing largely to expanded literacy. As the written word could finally reach the broad mass of people, newspapers exploded – and people’s reactions were largely similar to what we see today. Traditional authorities were undermined by a new, democratized form of communication. Anyone could start a paper of their own – but the unprecedented freedom of press also provided ample opportunities for abuse. Disingenuous actors could spread entirely false or sensationalist news, either with a political agenda or simply to sell tabloids – what we today would call “clickbait”. 

By 1941 a consensus had emerged on what made a publication “yellow”, or less serious – a term derived from the cheaper yellow paper on which lower quality news were printed. Formally defined by the journalist Frank Luther Mott, yellow journalism was press which relied on scare headlines, fake “experts”, eye-catching pictures and narratives of “the people” against “the elites”. Many of these exact tactics have again reared their ugly heads in the digital media landscape – for much the same reasons. With new forms of communication undermining traditional authorities, we once more live in a splintered world where trust is scarce and disinformation plentiful. 

Do facts even really matter in an age of storytelling and narratives?

While the role as storyteller, guru or explainer today dominates the media landscape, journalists have always had to deliver both on news and on narrative. The latter refers to opinionating, explaining and contextualizing the news, while the former refers to the classical five W’s of journalism: Who, what, when, where, and why? Many readers need and want someone to explain complicated political situations or difficult deadlocks, while others might just desire objective updates on the most recent news. Facts, certainly, are still a big ingredient in both.

However, catching attention with facts alone is nearly impossible in a world so overwhelmed with information and contradictory viewpoints. Media outlets who wish to make money – and most, of course, do – have to rely not only on their ability to relay information but also on their ability to sell, convince, sway, and attract. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the big social media platforms, who have so far made it their core business model. But just as people gradually abandoned the yellow press in favor of trusted institutions, so too are we now seeing a movement away from traditional models of click-based advertising, simply because it’s proven unsustainable. By Facebook’s account, a full day of someone’s attention on ads is valued at almost $200,000 (USD). This, obviously, is absurd, and an indicator of how bloated and overpriced the world of attention merchants has actually become. 

More and more users abandon ad-bloated platforms, install ad blockers, or become tired of sensationalist news that offer nothing of value. Just like the tabloids, such news sources will probably always be with us – but they won’t be nearly as profitable in the long run. Instead, media houses today experiment with a wide range of business models built around a variety of solutions – from premium “luxury” news, well-researched and well-funded, to personalized journalism relying on trust and donations from readers, to automated scanning, repackaging, and distribution of simpler news stories to save on costs. The end result will likely be a whole new ecosystem of media.

By and focusing on key core concepts in suitable niches, not only media companies but organizations in general can sharpen their communicative skills and become better at outreach, marketing, and communication. The right tone, format and content in the right channel will only become more important, especially when addressing the context-sensitive Generation Z that’s now coming of age. Those who know exactly what to convey – whether it’s basic facts or explanatory narrative – and in which forum to do so, will likely be the big winners in the media world of tomorrow. However clickonomics fare, those who prepare will likely be the survivors. 

By Rikard Molander