The new journalism sin that’s worse than clickbait

If you thought clickbait news article were annoying, journalist and The Media Distillery founder Alexander Liddington-Cox has uncovered another practice that's even worse and wastes more of your time.

Consumer awareness about manipulative media strategies remains confined to the term ‘clickbait’, but there’s another long-standing strategy that wastes more of a reader’s time. 

This strategy raises fundamental questions about journalism training, the economics of story selection and the levels of trust consumers have in our media that the communications industry needs to leverage business outcomes. 

An old typewriter

It’s deliberately burying the lede. 

Clickbait was conjured centuries ago 

‘Hashtag Clickbait’ is synonymous with the decline of media in the digital age, but it’s nothing new.  

The printing press was invented in 1436. By the end of the century one of the bestselling books was a little title called Malleus Maleficarum, which roughly translates to ‘The Hammer of Witches’. 

The book was a collection of absolute rubbish about the existence of witches and witchcraft, and the hysteria it whipped up led to tens of thousands of innocent young women being put to death. 

What Malleus Maleficarum and clickbait have in common is they are the result of a sudden lowering of the barriers to entry for publishing.  

There’s a surge in the supply of information, but the amount of audience attention remains constant. The threshold for commanding attention skyrockets. 

There was a further motivation for clickbait in the digital age.  

Newspapers could no longer rely on advertising generated by readers that merely skim the headlines and first paragraphs. They needed the clicks. 

When I was a cadet at Business Spectator, just as new media businesses were really disrupting traditional publishers, we were still trained to cater to this old-world reader.  

“Don’t bury the lede,” my then editor Rob Burgess, now founding editor of Money Advocate, told me at the time.  

“It’ll probably be the only thing they read.” 

Don’t get upset, but you’ve buried the lede 

Burying the lede is a media industry phrase for when the main point of the story, which we call the lede, appears further down the page, buried under less important information. 

The inference is actually quite profound. It’s that a journalist has fundamentally misunderstood the main point of a story.  

While it’s normally not meant as an insult, it’s often received as one. 

To suggest that burying the lede was no accident, that it was done deliberately, would’ve been inconceivable. For it to become a standard editorial strategy would’ve been worrying. 

While this strategy appears across the Australian media landscape, it’s best put to work by consumer-focused publications that can’t do a lot of sponsored content and whose audience is primarily interested in entertainment and sport. 

The headlines typically give away when this strategy is being used. A big-name brand, either an individual or a company, ‘breaks their silence,’ or ‘responds’ to an ongoing news story, usually one that involves a lot of speculation. 

The only new information is a pithy quote, buried six to 10 paragraphs into the story beneath multiple ads, underneath exhaustive background the reader probably already knows.  

While this is a story structure that’s quite common for gossip columns, when they don’t have much to go on, in all other instances this isn’t a story. It’s a tweet. 

Burying the lede is the natural evolution of clickbait. Once advertisers realised clickbait didn’t drag readers to their ads further down the page, media organisations had to lengthen our time on page.  

You can do this by creating incredible content, which is expensive, or by releasing information strategically. 

Burying the talent 

While clickbait has definitely increased in the digital age, the pressure to inflame has always and will always be there. 

But deliberately burning the lede? That’s seriously weird.  

It turns a violation of a fundamental practice of journalism to put the most important, relevant information as high up the story as possible, into standard operation procedure. It warps young journalists into writing a way that’s very difficult to untrain. 

When I speak to journalists at media organisations that use this strategy, more often than not they absolutely hate it. It’s not why they got into the profession. But it’s part of an ever-expanding toolkit of annoying strategies to increase audience engagement in the absence of a better model. 

I can’t tell you how many short ‘pickups,’ effectively poaching a larger media organisation’s expensive exclusive, I did during the early stages of my career. That was the model, but it took a long time to walk it off and learn how to write properly. 

While there are encouraging signs that some publishers are hiring journalists again in large numbers after the nadir, these signs are limited.  

The pressure on publishers to stretch every editorial innovation they can just to survive remains an ongoing threat to the trust readers place in media. 

Perhaps we need a new hashtag to draw the attention of consumers to an editorial practice that could be done away with once and for all if readers invested in quality journalism. 

One might suggest, #unburythatlede. 

Alexander Lidddington-Cox

Alexander Lidddington-Cox is a journalist, founder of The Media Distillery and creator/host of the OMDBpodcast. 


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