The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

How Newsweek Became a Clickbait Farm

Posted on | October 27, 2019 | Comments Off on How Newsweek Became a Clickbait Farm

Daniel Tovrov tells the sad story of a once-great journal’s decline:

The system is a remnant of the International Business Times’ ownership of Newsweek, which began in 2013 and formally ended in 2018, though the outlets still share executives. Many senior editors at Newsweek were promoted from IBT’s click-addicted breaking-news or culture desks. IBT, launched in 2006, is a classic news aggregator, with reporters in the US and Bangalore, plus a UK edition, churning out a high volume of clickbait at the expense of original, quality reporting. Former writer Owen Davis told me the site’s attitude toward search engine optimization was like a “cargo cult mentality”: the staffers who performed the most impressive rain (or click) dance were the ones praised, promoted, and moved over to Newsweek each time Google downgraded IBT in 2016 and 2017. . . .
Newsweek has tended to hire young reporters, many of them fresh from college papers or internships. In the course of my reporting for this piece, at least ten senior staffers left or were let go, their salaries freed up while Newsweek continued to look for “News Fellows,” contract employees working forty-hour weeks for $15 per hour, the minimum wage in New York City. . . .
I worked at IBT in 2011 and 2012, the year before it bought Newsweek. I was twenty-four and thrilled. When I was hired, I was one of two reporters covering “world news.” My original contract stipulated that I had to bring in a minimum of ten thousand unique readers a month, an impossibly high number that my editor told me to ignore. The world, US, and business desks were meant to write “legitimate” stories that went on the front page, while a “Continuous News Desk,” later renamed “Breaking News,” spammed Google News and paid our salaries. Drafting off the BuzzFeed News model that had developed months earlier, Jeffrey Rothfeder, our Editor-in-Chief, said that the clickbait would bring in revenue while hard-news reporting would build our reputation. . . .
Until recently, a reporter could earn an extra $2,000 per month for stories that attracted six hundred thousand unique page views. Numerous current and former reporters told me that when interviewing for a job at Newsweek, editors told them not to worry about salaries between $35,000 and $45,000 — about $10,000 less than the average entry-level reporter position in New York City — because their bonuses would earn them an additional $24,000 per year. 
But the reality is that if you aren’t writing clickbait, the bonuses can be hard to get. And failing to get a traffic bonus, some said, puts a target on your back.
“The way the bonus was presented during my job interview was as a goal. It’s called a ‘bonus,’ after all. But as soon as I started, it became very clear that it was a minimum,” says Pereira. . . .

Read the rest. It’s simply madness to organize a newsroom as a clickbait operation, whatever the numerical goals may be. One would expect that a publication with a “brand” as venerable as Newsweek might draw a certain level of traffic just by doing . . . well, regular journalism.

Grant that establishing productivity goals is necessary to encourage employees to crank out a steady output of copy. When I started out in the newspaper business, it was expected that a staff writer would produce 10 or 12 stories per week. Basically two stories a day, and this was local news, where you were working from your own notes, rather than just aggregating and/or re-writing stuff you grabbed off the Internet, which is a lot of what national “reporters” now do. The basic Newsweek item nowadays is 400-500 words, and I don’t think it would be too much to expect an entry-level staff to crank out something like 12 or 15 such items like that a week. For those reporters assigned to cover important beats — the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, the White House, etc. — it would be difficult to expect more than six or eight stories a week, but whatever the number, it’s necessary to establish some sort of metric in terms of productivity. When you start measuring productivity purely in terms of traffic, however, you’ve surrendered your editorial independence.

Obviously, the BuzzFeed model — using clickbait to build traffic (and thus, to pay the bills with advertising revenue) in order to support a core news operation — is one that has been widely emulated by other online journalism sites. What seems to have happened at Newsweek, however, is that this formula created a journalistic caste system, reliant upon a faceless bunch of $15-an-hour kids cranking out clickbait under a relentless pressure to drive traffic or be fired.

It’s worth noting Newsweek‘s tragic history. Once part of the mighty Washington Post publishing empire, the magazine was run into bankruptcy under the editorship of pretentious liberal Jon Meacham, and was carrying $50 million in debt when it was sold in 2010 for $1 — one dollar — to the husband of California Democrat Rep. Jane Harman. Meacham had taken to publishing liberal nonsense like the 2009 cover story “Is Your Baby Racist?” A few months later, Newsweek was merged with Tina Brown’s Daily Beast to form what was instantly dubbed “The Weekly Newsbeast.” By the time Brown’s sugar daddy Barry Diller pulled the plug in 2012, it was reported that the combined Newsweek/Daily Beast operation was losing money at a pace of $35 million a year.

Their current status as a clickbait farm owned by a religious group that has been called a “cult” is pretty much a commentary on the decadent condition of the American journalism industry.



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