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The Evolution of Journalism: from Objectivity to Catchy Titles

Being the fourth estate, journalism is one of the pillars of democracy. According to the French Enlightenment political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, “trias politica” or “the tripartite system” comprises of three forms of political power distributed among a legislature, an executive, and judiciary. Moreover, journalism is the fourth arm that balances those three by being a “watch dog” that works on behalf of the people.

In 1841, Thomas Carlyle once wrote in On Heroes and Hero Worship, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” At that time, Carlyle saw the press instrumental to the birth and growth of democracy, in spreading facts and opinions, and in triggering a revolution against tyranny, which is still the idealism thought by journalism professors at reputable J-Schools today.

This noble function of journalism is undoubtedly still very much needed, or even much more needed, in today’s society where hoaxes, fake news, and clickbaits are rampant. The thing is, journalism is now at the crossroads, which would determine how it functions in the future and how it continues to influence the society.

We can shape the future by staying true to those ideals while adopting new tools, like advanced technologies and the Internet.

There is a fundamental shift in journalism that occurs as the Internet has been instrumental in changing how publications generate revenue. This, in turn, affects the quality of journalistic articles and the readers’ reading habit, which explains the emergence of another shift, as a consequence, from objective journalism to articles with catchy titles aimed at generating clicks.

In this article, we’ll discuss the changes in news publication landscape and how journalists can continue to carry their noble ideals while creating viral stories.

Changes in Revenue Generation in Publications

In the past, print publications generated revenue from copies sold at newsstands and subscriptions. After going online, many publications relied on subscription paywalls and paid ads from sponsors. Now adblockers have reduced sponsors’ interest in placing advertisements on news sites, so publications had no other choice than to rely on paid subscribers and impression-based and pay-per-click ads.

While paid subscriptions may cover some operational costs, paid publications are continuously being bombarded by the on-going emergence of new free online media and personal blogs on a daily basis. How many articles per day do people publish online? According to Wordometers.info, approximately 3.5 to 4 million blog posts are written and published on a daily basis. And this figure includes both professionally and amateurishly written. Super crowded, indeed.

More astonishingly, according to Media Post research, 90% of today’s data was created in the last two years. Imagine how crowded the web will be in the next five years, thanks to the low barrier to entry for publishing online and starting online publication startups. In a couple of minutes, you can set up a WordPress blog and have articles published. With a few hours of tweaking a magazine-style WordPress theme, a publication startup is born.

All these stories are competing for readers’ attention, and there is no holiday for it. This amazingly tight competition forces old-school publications’ online arms to churn out even more stories to just to stay at the top of the game and to be able to earn thousands or even millions of impressions and clicks –so they can stay afloat financially.

According to The Atlantic, The Washington Post publishes 500 articles written by in-house writers and a total of 1,200 stories written by both internal writers and syndicated providers like the Associated Press every single day. The New York Times publishes 150 articles per day on weekdays, 250 articles per day on weekends plus 65 blog posts per day every day. The Wall Street Journal publishes 150 articles per day on weekdays and 300 articles per day on Sundays. Buzzfeed publishes approximately 222 to 373 articles per day on average.

In short, all publications now rely on more clicks to stay healthy and continue operation. And these include both top-notch publications and solo bloggers. This fundamental change in revenue model has ripple effects across the industry.

Journalists Adapting to Changes

For journalists, being at the crossroads mean they’d need to be innovative in breaking the news and to use a title that’s sexy enough to generate clicks and make it viral. In other words, being the first person to break the news might not be enough to result favorably, if the title doesn’t trigger virality. Thus, to survive in this changing landscape, journalists have to adopt new mindsets, new skills, and new strategies.

There are four areas in which journalists must adapt themselves to succeed.

1. Understand how publications make money

If a journalist works for publication, he or she must understand how it makes money. Most likely, publications make money from impression-based or pay-per-click ads, in addition to other promotional arrangements, including sponsored contents and banner ads. This means viral articles are worth in gold and most, if not all, journalists should aim for it.

Of course, it must be done without sacrificing newsworthiness, objectivity, and impartiality, which require a different set of skills altogether. For this, upgrading digital-related skills is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Learn the ins and outs of writing digitally or “online copywriting.” However, in the application, don’t mix journalism with marketing copywriting. Remain true to your noble “fourth estate” calling.

2. Be lightning fast

Be ahead of everyone else. It means a journalist must grow extra pairs of eyes and ears. With various automated tools, like social media listening app and virality predictor Almighty.Press, a journalist should be able to ahead of the game, so they can be the first one to break the news. Alternatively, at least, he or she can be the first one to curate the breaking news and provides a strong analysis that comes with its right to be viral.

3. Write objectively, concisely and evocably

Journalism students have been taught to be objective, truthful, impartial, and ready at all times to hunt breaking news. Working journalists are like soldiers ready to tackle any news that needs to be written. However, now they’re more than that. They need to also evoke readers to read.

Why? Because even a personal blogger a.k.a. a citizen journalist can tackle breaking news, to be honest. This being said, conventional journalists must have something extra that citizen journalists don’t: a “competitive advantage.”

Compete with citizen journalists by combining substance with conciseness and evocability. Because digital readers have short reading span, they prefer shorter paragraphs, shorter stories, more to the point, and headlines that evoke them to click in the first place. Media Bistro offers many digital journalism courses for legit digital journalists.

4. Be ready to do more than just reporting

J-school professors might not have taught you how to be an influencer and a news curator. But to win the new game of journalism, you’d need to be both. You can learn these skills by yourself, as long as you have the time and the will. The Kardashians, for instance, are extremely sophisticated in being influencers without ever going to school for it.

Becoming an influencer starts with finding your natural passion and taking it to the next level with continuous and high-quality social media presence and by following things up. Brand Watch has these excellent 17 rules on becoming an influencer to learn from. In Journalism 2.0, being an influencer means you have your own personal brand separate from the publication you work for. You bring your followers wherever you go and they can be your best evangelists that make your stories viral.

Being a news curator would require advanced social media listening and virality predictor, so keep yourself updated in these areas. Subscribe to the best tools out there. For instance, Almighty.Press uses algorithms that generate viral stories before they even go viral (virality predictor). Curate those pre-viral stories alongside breaking news, so you’re always at the top of the game.

Publications and Journalists Retaining Trust from Readers

Social media newsfeeds, like Facebook, have been conditioning readers to consume articles with catchy titles or “clickbaits.” The term “clickbait” itself, according to Neiman Journalism Lab, refers to:

Clickbait is in the eye of the beholder, but Facebook defines it as “when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.”

While it’s a neutral term, many sites have been abusing clickbaits simply to gain tons of clicks. Thus, just like in other areas of life, there are “good” and “harmless” clickbaits and there are “bad” clickbaits.” While advanced readers would be able to discern the good, the bad, and the neutral clickbaits, journalists should continue to uphold their best practices with the good ethics.

Thus, since today’s stories need to be both viral and trustworthy, there are several ways to do it right according to Columbia Journalism Review.

1. Never use empty teasers

To uphold the noble cause of journalism, catchy titles should be used sparingly and not be misleading. Remember that objectivity and truthfulness are what make a piece of news or story “journalistic.” The New York Times have their own guidelines on creating headlines, which is worth reading, because apparently, highly-skilled journalists can still capitalize the digital trends without sacrificing quality.

Start without using empty teasers just to gain clicks. Instead, use an angle of the story that sparks curiosity and certain emotions without over doing it. In a newsy article, refrain from using emotional headlines, but focus on something that needs to be read to understand to trigger a desire to read and is eventually satisfying to readers.

2. Adapt the format, but never the substance

While a typical journalistic article adopts the inverted pyramid approach, sometimes there are other ways to deliver the message. In an online environment, this model has several disadvantages.

In “inverted pyramid” method, a story isn’t told naturally with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, the summary is placed at the top and the writer tells a story backward, which is ideal for fast breaking news, but not for stories that build up the readers’ curiosity. And it’s also bad for the site’s “stickiness,” since readers already grasp the whole story in the beginning few sentences.

In online journalism, long-form articles with catchy titles are better told with a typical storytelling model that comes with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This would allow for curiosity to build up from the start and lead to a satisfying conclusion, which would make readers staying on the page longer or “stick.” This being said, conventional storytelling and summarizing models might come in handy, as long as the substance isn’t discounted or corrupted.

3. Be open and communicative by being responsive

Another proven way to remain trustworthy is by being open, approachable, and communicative to readers. Be responsive by responding to article comments and tweets, for instance. However, always uphold the “no negative remarks,” “no trolling,” and “no bullying” policy.

Remember that a journalist in the digital era is more than a news breaker. He or she is also a storyteller, a facilitator, an influencer, and a news curator. By being approachable, you’re a “facilitator,” as a good relationship with readers are beneficial in multiple ways, including taking along loyal readers wherever you write and unlimited sources of news and stories for future works.

Journalists Staying Competitive by Being Innovative

Journalists 2.0 must stay competitive by being creative and innovative. It does take more than a village to brush-up journalistic skills, mindsets, and strategies. The good thing is, there are all kinds of automated tools out there that can make life easier.

Here are three things that you must change to be competitive in this new journalism landscape:

1. Change journalistic mindset without being unethical

Remain being a bona fide member of the fourth estate by adhering to the ethical guidelines. According to Ethical Journalism Network, there are five principles of journalism: truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. Out of these five principles, accuracy is the most important.

The ten tenets of journalism in good reporting in today’s convergent environment taught at Missouri School of Journalism are: be accurate, avoid biases, present multiple viewpoints or perspectives, pursue the truth, use factual data, yet develop people skills, maintain community ties and “connect the dots,” be open and transparent, evoke emotion, think visually, and integrate new developments and technology. Again, in this list, accuracy is placed at the top.

Good journalism is based on facts. And “accuracy” means no deceptive handling of the facts. This means that digital journalists need to make sure that stories are accurately presented, starting with the headline. If “clickbait” headlines are used, it must be done cautiously, to ensure that they don’t create any false impression.

2. Follow the viral trends without sacrificing objectivity

Google Trends provides a glimpse of trending stories. You can learn about the latest trending topics and compare how those stories are presented. Are they newsy? Are they analytical? Opinionated? What is each story’s competitive advantage? Can you write better stories than them?

Follow viral contents to learn their comparative content advantages, which means you’d need to get familiar with the competitors’ content and their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, if ABC online magazine published about the such and such topic, just like you did, why did their version become viral and yours didn’t? Take note and be humble to learn from them. Use their lessons to polish your future works.

3. Use analytics and algorithms that have been proven to be accurate and reliable

Use proven data analytics and algorithms to enhance choices of words, choices of terms, headlines, and story formats. Parse.ly is an example of data analytics management SaaS that helps with online publications’ campaign tracking, sponsored content, and video analytics. For instance, based on Parse.ly report, The Atlantic discovered the importance of using term “Republican” instead of “GOP” as it generates more clicks.

Alternatively, you can use Almighty.Press to curate pre-viral stories for choosing topics with strong virality. The algorithms used have been proven with past successful viral sites, which have been sold for millions of dollars. Now Almighty.Press can be used by anyone with subscription.

The Importance of Proper Curation

In this section, we will discuss the fourth role of today’s digital journalist (other than being a storyteller, a facilitator, and an influencer): being a news curator. What? Yep. A journalist needs to be on top of the game by being the first to know when there are pre-viral stories in his or her beat or topic(s). By “pre-viral stories,” it refers to stories that are about to get viral before they saturate the web.

1. What is proper curation (algorithm based and ethical)

Nothing is new under the sun. Every study is based on top of other studies. And every story is inspired or influenced, directly or indirectly, by other stories. Thus, there is nothing unethical to curate other people’s stories. It’s part of the research.

The key to curate properly is by using proven algorithms and being ethical. Almighty.Press is the latest proper curation tool that provides publishers and journalists to find pre-viral stories before they become saturated on the web. Those viral stories you’ve been receiving on Facebook newsfeeds are already viral for quite some time and have been generation millions of views.

Imagine that you have known stories that are about to get viral, so you can curate them and write stories surrounding them. You can write opinionated, analytical, or simple summarizing stories based on them. To curate properly, use guidelines provide by Hubspot.

Hubspot’s 11 best practices for effective content curation include: intentional about themes and topics, pull from a consistent set of sources, use an automated queuing and distribution system, always give credit back to the publisher, post across channels to increase reach and awareness growth, 3-4 curated posts a day, actively curate 2-3 times a week, make instant curation one-click easy from the browser, use team tools to increase contributions, spread out posts from the same consistently-good sources, and prioritize content from partners and prospects.

2. How it differs from other types of curation

In the academia, a Master thesis and a PhD dissertation are prepared with extensive literature review process, which is evident from the tens or, even, hundreds of references listed in the bibliography page. In a way, a scholar is a “master curator” worthy of his or her own praise. The way the “curated” information is presented uses high-level conceptual, analytical thinking that both synthesizes and brings forth new ideas based on existing ideas (theories, frameworks, concepts, etc.)

In digital journalism, algorithm-based curation, like the one provided by Almighty.Press, skips the manual searches and reviews, which allows journalists to focus on analyzing and synthesizing pre-viral ideas and to re-package them properly and ethically for further consumption. It’s been known that several household name online publications have earned millions of dollars using this type of curation and the trend isn’t slowing down.

In conclusion, journalism will continue to evolve digitally as technological advancements provide unprecedented opportunities for various tools, including analytics and algorithm-based curation. Despite the “catchy headline” trends, journalism would remain as the fourth estate in society, as virality and trustworthiness can and should go hand-in-hand.

CMO at Almighty.Press - Marketing and social media strategist for Almighty.Press, with over 15 years experience in online marketing and social media. I have been described as a "Swiss Army Knife" by those who work with me and "Addicted to Fishing" by those who know me best.

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