Monday, October 08, 2012

Why don’t journalists tell “important” stories?

Because – as if you didn’t already know this – people don’t read them.

I mean this.

People. Don’t. Read. Important. Stories.

The entire Internet knows damn well the meaning of the expression “linkbait”: it means posting a story solely for attracting readers so your ads will do well. “Nude Paris Hilton in iPhone Phishing Scandal” will do nicely or, to be more contemporary headline-wise, you could try Patentology’s “Smartphone Wars, Gangam Style”.

Why do people do this? Because it works. It makes money.

Bluntly, even more than television – which may from time to time be ruled by a proprietor who cares about quality – the Internet’s perverse reward is this: write about high-rating trivia, make money. Write about something that actually matters, lose money.

I can’t reveal the Web server statistics from over at The Register, where I generate some of my income. But relativities will do nicely if you remember that the numbers I’m going to give you have to be multiplied by some number of thousands to approach reality – and no, I’m not going to tell you.

Here are three stories I filed today, not in any particular order:

(Synopsis: the US Supreme Court may give copyright holders control over people who sell stuff second-hand)

(Synopsis: Amateurs build a UAV that wins a prize by locating a dummy, representing a missing bushwalker, without human help)

(Synopsis: an interesting Acorn Worm at the bottom of the Atlantic bears a superficial resemblance to Yoda, if you have imagination and the right angle on the photograph)

Now: I have my own opinions, as you will have yours, on the relative “importance” of these stories. For my money, the right to sell things you own – not just books, it could be a designer dishwasher or a computer – is pretty fundamental to the notion of privat property, and should trump the list.

So what’s the relative ranking of the three stories?

Yoda worm – 6 hits per unit
Resale rights – 1.8 hits per unit
UAVs saving lives – 1.5 hits per unit

That’s right, folks. The “linkbait” Yoda-worm story out-rated two “important” stories by three-to-four times as many readers. Multiply it by the right number of thousands – no, I’m still not revealing that – and you have serious money involved.

(Yoda was so popular it was Number One during Monday in Australia time – but I can see any number of stories rising with a bullet as England wakes.)

The painful fact is, people, that the Internet offers a perverse reward: the right linkbait will beat the important story nine rolls out of ten.

One of the reasons I write for El Reg is that I still have license to write stories that I think may be important, even when those stories don’t set the wallets jangling. I strongly suspect that few journalists get to make those decisions for themselves, especially when there’s an Apple launch in the offing.

I’m lucky.

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