Generate your own Facebook outrage links

Under pressure for spreading fake news, Facebook tweaked its algorithm (yet again) to prioritize “authentic” content. If you like to share stories on Facebook that are engineered more to generate outrage rather than convey facts, your online followers are supposedly less likely to see the clickbait headlines in what Facebook calls its news feed. Don’t worry, this post has a solution for you knicker-knotters.

First a little background.

Clickbait headlines are ones that promise a story that’s much more emotionally satisfying in some way than what’s actually delivered. I have written headlines for a living and can testify that mainstream news organizations want their headlines to be compelling too, but without over-promising. A news organization that values a reputation for accuracy and wants lifetime subscribers is not going to risk letting its readers down each time they click. Even the more tabloid-oriented news organizations use sensationalism sparingly, and have other tools to make headlines compelling: celebrity name-dropping, clever wording, and paying real journalists to do the reporting and editing that allows them to honestly boast the story is “exclusive” or “breaking.”

A sensational headline based on sensational facts is not clickbait or fake news. Those terms lose meaning unless properly reserved to describe headlines and stories that are exaggerated beyond reality or deliberately misleading. Some of the cliches that infest headlines on social media (You won’t believe…the 17 best…will change your life) may be attached to clickbait, or they may link to truly useful or entertaining content. If I am looking for good ramen in Santa Monica, it really doesn’t matter to me if the headline uses some tired change-your-life trope as long as it links to a well-researched, up-to-date list of restaurants.

This post is about shameless fake news sites and their close relatives, the left- or right-leaning websites that propagandize followers with headlines that are hysterical—in the screeching, humorless, paranoid sense of that word.

I have become friends with several people whose morning ritual is to share links to these shameless sites. So here’s some advice to get around the algorithm blockade. Don’t bother to link. Write your own headlines, using the guide below, inspired by the work of satirists over the decades, from Spy magazine to the website that generates fake Upworthy headlines. All you have to do is randomly match one from column A with one from column B and so on.

I could go on but you get the idea. Now you may be wondering: What good does this do if you are not linking your headline to an actual website or blog post? The answer is that the emotional rush of outrage is the same whether or not your followers click through, if they were stupid enough to do so anyway.

Do writers choose the wrong word by accident?

Something is terribly wrong. A crash. A cloud of smoke or dust. If you are on the road and traffic has stopped, you’re probably thinking, “There has been an accident.” But if you are in a newsroom and know only that something seems to have crashed or blown up, you really have to think about what words to use. Mishap is usually to too weak and inconsequential to describe something that will make news, but calling it a disaster may be premature. Maybe accident?

Let’s see how that has played out recently.

Explosions at a warehouse in Tianjin, China in August 2015 eventually killed more than 120 people in what was widely reported as an accident, and not just by China’s official news agency.

China detained the owners of a hazardous-chemicals storage warehouse rocked by deadly explosions in Tianjin as authorities sought to discover the cause of the latest industrial accident to hit the country. — Bloomberg News.

It is it not uncommon for the news media to describe a disaster as an accident even if it is being investigated or prosecuted as a crime. That falls within one of the dicScreen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.38.25 PMtionary definitions of accident: “an unpleasant and unintended happening, sometimes resulting from negligence, that results in injury, loss, damage, etc. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). But somehow accident doesn’t feel like a neutral word, because it has a forgiving connotation. It skirts the issue of blame, like apologizing with a passive admission that “mistakes were made.”

When an underground explosion started a fire in a coal mine in Turkey in May 2014, killing 301 workers, The New York Times called it “Turkey’s worst mining accident.” In a one-year anniversary followup the newspaper quoted the widow of one of the victims as saying, “To call it an accident is sinful — it was coldblooded murder.” Lax enforcement of safety standards was at least a contributing cause to the high death toll even if the proximate cause of the tragedy was a transformer fire. Managers and inspectors were accused of negligence and put on trial in a case still dragging on.

A lot of tragedies involve complex sequences of events. In July 2013, an oil train derailed in Quebec, Canada, caught fire, exploded and destroyed more than 30 buildings, killing 47 people. Canadian media were still calling it an accident a year later when investigators documented failings including insufficient brakes, a bad engine repair and inadequate regulatory oversight.

The collapse of a building full of garment factories in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 people in 2013 eventually resulted in murder charges against 41 people. Regardless of the verdicts, the disaster will be forever enshrined on lists of “worst accidents.”

Writing less like a journalist because that’s a thing for millennials?

If you know your writing is being consumed mostly online, probably on a phone screen, you’d be crazy not to  …

  • get right to the point
  • use short sentences
  • make brief lists. (See?)

OK, putting the important information first and writing concisely is not a new idea in journalism, but is digital writing simply adapting to new formats, or is there a generational change under way? I’m thinking about this because I am advising a blogger on retirement planning whose audience skews older. But anyone publishing news or commentary has to consider what the intended audience craves or tolerates.

Jim Brady, whose company runs an innovative local news site in Philadelphia called, told Digiday:  “We’ve consciously tried to make things sound less journalistic.” He said, “I really do think that the journalistic detachment has contributed to the indifference young people feel toward traditional journalism right now.”

Sites aimed at a young audience are more likely to use obscenities and texting-based acronyms, because … WTF? Their readers won’t be outraged or confused. That and some selective use of snark and irony help keep the voice and tone close to the everyday experience of the audience.

Buzzfeed has a style guide to keep its writers consistent, so they know apeshit is one word, butt-dial is hyphenated and nip slip is two words. But Buzzfeed has its limits: “Non-offensive, ‘casual-use’ profanity in cases where it’s warranted by the tone or subject matter of a post.”

Vice, one of the most successful media companies focused on youth, reportedly included this in its style guide for writers: “Keep it punchy, but avoid writing in an edgy voice like some people who wish they wrote for us tend to do.”

If being too loose or too edgy is just as much of a problem as being too detached, writers for the youth-oriented sites could try to be authoritative yet conversational. If that’s the course they are on, they are tweaking the acceptable language of journalistic story-telling not reinventing it. (Note that I am addressing only the writing, not choice of subject matter, which is a separate story.)

Regardless of whether you have readers who know “hack” as a verb or a noun, you don’t want to be a hack.

Journalists have mental checklists of facts and figures for each type of story. If a bus crashes, number of passengers, origin and destination, age of the bus, driver’s experience, time of day, weather, traffic conditions.

What makes journalistic writing tiresome is failure to limit the story to only the most relevant facts and figures. The jury is made up of nine women and three men? That may be relevant if the charge is rape. The indictment was 34 pages? Um, not sure anyone of any age would care except the clerk who has to make copies.

Here’s an example from a local newspaper story about a lawsuit resulting from a teenager’s suicide: The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages in excess of $15,000, the threshold for filing in the court. Writers who took the story to a national or global audience left out that mind-numbing detail and focused on the lawsuit’s underlying issue: whether a school district might share blame if it failed to enforce anti-bullying policies.

Some of the best journalism bogs down occasionally because writers are methodically attributing facts or documenting attempts to get comment. But even the youth-oriented sites are showing enough concern about standards that you’ll still be seeing that kind of “writing like a journalist” wherever you turn for professionally reported news.

Five big digital analytics mistakes

For many working in digital news outside of the top-tier enterprises, analyzing metrics is a do-it-yourself project. This is a brief primer — admittedly not an in-depth tutorial — on five pitfalls:
analytics provider logos1. Focusing on the greatest hit. The tallest bar on a bar chart may be a valuable clue for a marketer who wants to know which product is hot. But what do news publishers learn by seeing their coverage of a celebrity death was off the charts? Of course everyone was interested, but it’s not like you   can replicate the story by ordering up another Michael Jackson death. If you recognize that the biggest hit is an outlier, you’ll either need to ignore it or mine it deeper: Does the geographic origin or referral source of this wave of drive-by traffic provide clues to your potential audience that your regular coverage is not capturing? If you did some follow-up stories to the big hit, which ones worked and which segments of the original audience came back for more?
2. Automating display. Tools that use real-time metrics to automate display can be tempting for a short-staffed website. What could go wrong if the most popular items are automatically given the most prominence? This is a recipe for more traffic, more revenue, and horrifying unintended consequences. A silly item could climb to the top of the homepage because readers are linking to it on Facebook in a discussion about whether it is offensive or inaccurate. Have you ever laughed at how Facebook decided your news feed or ad interests, or how YouTube’s “Recommended channel for you” missed the mark? Every data-driven formula works differently, but assuming you wield a lot less data than Facebook or YouTube, you’re bound to get some brand-tarnishing displays.
3. False equivalency. To create a user-friendly dashboard, some analytics providers rank content by number of clicks or video streams as though each content item is competing against all the others of that same type on the site. In fact, all the content on your site is competing with everything on the internet that is a click or two away. A story that typically would draw a relatively small base audience may be important to the site’s mission and its retention of loyal return visitors or growth of paid subscriptions. It’s important to understand what’s working in those stories to avoid wasting time and money on low-margin content. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the story about the puppy being saved beat the story about the dumbest cat ever for first place, but let’s find out why there is suddenly a town council story in the Top 25 if that never happens.
4. Misunderstanding engagement. Once you have gotten some insight from a particular metric or set of metrics, it’s tempting to give it too much weight going forward. Imagine that your community of readers has somehow gotten into the habit of sharing all your stories about the town council — because of its heroic action to save puppies earlier this year. That issue is over, and few are reading the stories now but they persist in sharing, burnishing their civic-minded, puppy-loving image among friends. That sounds far-fetched but a well-publicized Chartbeat study of 2 billion pageviews on 2,000 sites found that a majority of clicks don’t result in significant reading time, and those sharing stories on social media are not more likely to have read through them than the non-sharers.
5. Tuning out completely. Perhaps your digital metrics seem obvious or suspicious. They may be baffling because of coding errors on your site or interference from the bots that infest the web. You can easily find someone to tell you that the system you are using is useless or even inadequate — they will sell you a better one. But it would be a mistake to ignore or write off whatever data you have. The ability to have real-time audience measurement and quantification of readership and viewership is too valuable to give up.

Disabling comments

Disabling comments – a debate that cuts to the core of online news

I was in the office of the editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper several years ago when he confided in me about a new, frustrating task that was eating away at his time and morale. His website, a corporate-designed template, allowed anyone to comment anonymously. His staff had to moderate – or more accurately censor – this stream of communal wisdom and invective. This involved executive-level judgment calls often enough that the editor took the task mostly upon himself.

It was like a second job – in a newsroom where everyone who still had a job already had at least two jobs.

Fast-forward to the present. The editor left journalism after watching his newsroom undergo layoffs, consolidation, regionalization etc. The newspaper still moderates comments, but requires all commenters to log on with valid Facebook accounts, outsourcing the policing of its no-pseudonym policy to a 200 billion-dollar technology company. This hack was at best an interim solution for the newspaper industry that grew out of backlash against anonymous posting described in this 2010 New York Times story. Facebook is sophisticated at blocking spam and deleting offensive posts, but readers of a community newspaper may be understandably offended that their ability to join a local forum requires membership in and submission to the rules of a global technological behemoth.

Perennially, some news organization disables comments somewhere, setting off a trend-watch: Maybe comments are not just in the toilet but are about to be flushed down forever. One reason the debate over whether to enable comments keeps coming up is that it encompasses the essence of online news, the interactive culture that made “new media” new.

Think about what interactivity means in digital news, and you can’t get away from the requirement for audience participation. Digital news prophets such as Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen, noting that any barriers to publishing are gone for the average person, have promoted the “former audience” concept. All those people who no longer tune in to the evening news at an appointed hour, subscribe to newspapers, frequent a newsstand or even bookmark a homepage make up a formidable former audience that have to be targeted with – new buzzword – engagement strategies.

Disabling comments is the opposite of an engagement strategy since it can simply drive those with something to say to another platform. Some publishers are OK with that, as explained when it surrendered its social media discussions to Facebook and Twitter:

“The passionate discussions we see on our Facebook page — as well as the conversations our audience is having with our writers on Twitter — are more productive and organized than what tends to happen in our comments section.

“Rather than assigning team members to manage the comments on our site, we are investing our engineering and editorial resources in new products and storytelling formats that benefit our audience.”

Knowing whether this makes sense for your site requires a strategy. And it all starts with some basic questions every digital news operation already should have answered for itself:

  • What percentage of our content do we want or expect to come from our users? (I’ll address how to measure this in a future post.)
  • Can we make a platform for this ourselves or do we need outside technical help? (If you have a story of success or frustration with this, please share in by responding.)
  • Will it be something off the shelf, custom designed in house or by a vendor?
  • How can social media help make this work better for us?

The news industry can and will develop more technologically advanced ways to screen comments. Filtering software can be customized to reflect local standards and give precedence to locally trusted commenters. Mozilla, the software developer known for its Firefox browser, is engaged in an initiative backed by major newspapers and the Knight Foundation.

In the meantime, sites should use comments as a playground for experimentation as much as time allows. The space for composing a comment can be highlighted or semi-hidden, open to all or only to registered users. Content filters can be tightened or tweaked. Taking note of how these experiments play out can save time and money when buying or implementing future software solutions.