Shoptalk: Can Publishers Step Away From the Brink of Peak Content?


Journalism doesn’t have a clickbait problem. It has a content problem.

There’s been a lot of disparagement of publishers who employ ‘clickbait’ over the past few days. Though the definition has shifted from its origin as a term for the gap between what a publisher promises and what the article actually delivers to a more generic term for lazy reportage, nobody wants to be seen endorsing a model that prioritizes empty clicks.

In an article on Quartz titled ‘Clickbait is devouring journalism but there are ways out,’ media commentator Frédéric Filloux argues:

“In the news business, duplication and commoditization have reached unprecedented levels.

“The audience-building process is shifting its focus from quality to unabated eyeball collection tactics, with pernicious consequences.”

In a nutshell, his argument is that chasing huge audience figures for the sake of diminishing digital ad revenue has led publishers to create expensive-to-maintain ‘clickbait engines’ that lead to uniformity in form, which in turn lessens the value of an individual brand.


It’s an extremely similar argument to that which Kevin Anderson made on TMB in January. He argued then that the market abhors super-abundance—but that publishers daren’t step away from the brink of peak content:

“Many newsrooms pushed fewer staff to produce an ever increasing amount of content, and that trend accelerated during the Great Recession.

“In 2013, Digiday looked at who was winning the volume game in publishing. It’s ancient history in terms of digital media, but back then, the New York Times and its 1,100 strong newsroom was pumping out 350 pieces of content per day whilst the Huffington Post’s 500-plus staffers were flooding the internet with 1,200 pieces of content per day, not to mention the 400 blog posts per day from their network of low paid or unpaid bloggers.”

And a piece from Li Zhou on The Atlantic reveals a new facet of publishers’ push towards clickbait—now that third parties have accurate user data to share with publishers, it’s clickbait that chases actual user demand rather than trying to predict it:

“Something about this Glamour arrangement—about a publication so overtly using data from Facebook to shape its content—feels odd. While this partnership could foster relevant, compelling conversations, a more cynical view would be that it’s the perfect recipe for the ultimate click bait: plucking content directly from reader’s brains, and then presenting it back to them on a silver platter.”

So what now?

Both Anderson and Filloux’s articles contain suggestions as to how publishers can escape the ‘clickbait’ trap. They range from advocacy of ‘newsroom partition’ in which serious content and clickbait creators are clearly delineated in the newsroom, to the radical suggestion that only not-for-profit news publishers can avoid the trap.

Putting aside the ethical quandaries of clickbait and focusing entirely on the damage peak content is doing to publishers’ business models, is it possible that audience data is actually a solution if implemented correctly?

Speaking at the Changing Media Summit in March on the topic of the marriage of technology and publishing, the CTO of Schibsted Rian Liebenberg argued that accurate user data helps cut down on the noise of replicated content:

“Newspapers are very user-centric and user-centric publishing models force a publisher to really think about personalization or personal journalism where you really have to rethink the paradigms around how you do storytelling, how you engage audiences and have a discussion around that topic.

“To do that you need to understand your audiences in a lot more depth with a lot more clarity… so real-time data, capturing performances and using that to optimize your news as well as related content… (is vital).”

He does, however, note that converting mass audiences into logged-in users is still something most publishers outside of Nordic countries are struggling to achieve.

There are no silver bullets to solve the problem of peak content. Publishers’ reliance on ad revenue from huge audiences means they’ll inevitably resort to lowest common denominator-style publishing if they ever need a boost. But peak content is an ill wind that’s blowing no publishers any good, and something will have to give sooner rather than later.

Chris Sutcliffe is senior reporter for TheMediaBriefing. He writes about the process of publishers’ transition from print dependence to digital viability. This article originally appeared at

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