The other day, while reading the local newspaper on my iPhone, I actually stopped to think about something I typically ignore.
About halfway through an otherwise credible news story was a jarring photo of a disheveled woman on the street who appeared to have missing teeth and looked like she needed help. “She Was Once The Hottest Actress, Guess Who” read a line of text under it. “Sponsored content” read another line. This troubling item in the middle of a news story was inviting me to click and leave the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper for a website called WoahWorld.
For the typical reader of local news online, that’s likely not the only kind of clickbait you’ve seen while scrolling through a story. “Ben Stiller’s Wife Is Now 205lbs And Looks Insane” is another one that’s been popping up on a newspaper site in Colorado lately. “This Simple Trick Empties Almost Immediately Your Bowels Every Morning” is another. (My advice would be not to find out where every click might take you unless you don’t mind the risk of being followed around the web by an equivalent of digital Roombas sucking up your data.)
You might have heard nicknames for some of this stuff: Clickbait. Chumbox ads. Garbage content. Some in the business use more professional-sounding descriptors: Content recommendation links. Recirculation widgets.
Whatever the name, the ads come at a time when local news sources are competing for attention in an online world of “fake news” and misinformation, trading on reader trust and their own credibility to set them apart. It can be disorienting to see such junk popping up alongside the most serious of public service journalism.
So, why are they there?
Money. A lot of it.
In the past decade or so, savvy businesspeople have found a way to profit from the massive reach of news sites by essentially selling our eyeballs to companies that get paid by views and clicks. Sites hunting for visitors can pay third parties to find them potential clickers. People who read news sites must be full of itchy fingers. In exchange for publishing the ads, news orgs can get a cut of the money.
The bottom line is this distracting and dubious content, engineered to bait us into clicking, pumps much-needed capital into anemic newsroom budgets. Digital ad dollars and subscriptions have not made up for a collapse in traditional advertising revenue. Until that happens — or something else comes along that financially sustains commercial local news organizations — housing these demoralizing images is one of the tradeoffs of a struggling industry in flux.
At The Gazette in Colorado Springs, a paper owned by a billionaire, off-putting content can run smack in the middle of a news story. At The Denver Post, which is controlled by a New York hedge fund, they appear at the bottom of a page. On the website of the Coloradoan in Fort Collins, which is owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, clickbait like the kind luring readers to check out a famous actress’s “massive weight loss” appears at the end of news stories.
Eric Larsen, the editor of the Coloradoan who sometimes writes personal columns inviting his readers behind the scenes at the paper, says he hasn’t yet explained why the ads exist, though he’s considered it. He would prefer to operate in a world, he told me, where reader revenue — either from subscriptions, donations, or something else — would allow him to get rid of these kinds of attempts to profit from his paper’s reach.
“I think advertorials and these feeds ultimately harm trust in our brands in the search for supplemental revenue,” he acknowledged. “But if you look at that revenue … and see that it’s supporting X number of local journalists’ salaries, there’s a concession there. Is the loss of that revenue, and potentially the associated local reporting manpower, the greater evil given the continued erosion of local journalism across the country?”
The Coloradoan’s brand is local journalism, he says, and “without funding for the people to produce that work, we have no brand to erode.”
Where does that leave audiences with whom local news sites are trying to build trust? For me, I feel a bit uneasy being so willing to accept a little image-shaming alongside serious coverage if that’s what it takes to keep a newsroom’s lights on. But I also understand it. I have some options, too. I can install ad blockers or I can even pay one newspaper, Denver’s alternative weekly Westword, to read a special version of its site online without ads and sponsored content cluttering up the screen.
In the face of such a tradeoff, some local journalists have tried to do what they can to make this stuff less in your face.
At KRDO, the ABC affiliate TV station in Colorado Springs, digital director Andrew McMillan brought up the issue with management about ads appearing in nearly every other paragraph. “I raised my concerns about them affecting our credibility,” he told me. His station’s general manager, he said, agreed, and they raised it with corporate executives to push them down the page.
So now, at least on one TV station’s site, if you do want to learn about, say, “the tragic story of conjoined twins Abby and Brittany,” or find out what to drink before bed to burn belly fat overnight, you’ll have to do just a little more scrolling.
Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative. Interested in an insider’s look at the news behind the news in Colorado? Sign up here for Corey’s weekly email newsletter.