Last week, Donald Trump said a stupid thing (evergreen sentence), and I put up a short post about it. We quoted him directly, and there wasn’t a single thing that was factually incorrect about the title—Donald Trump as Melania Stands next to Him: “Melania Really Wanted to Be with Us.”
Now, did he think that Melania wasn’t standing there behind him? Highly doubtful, and I made that crystal clear in the piece when I wrote:
“Melania really wanted to be with us” is probably his fast food-addled brain’s way of saying “Melania was really excited to come and help today.”
I promoted the piece explicitly saying that I didn’t take him literally.
Yet I received a torrent of hatred for “deceptively chasing clicks” and had a few people tell me that Paste is just “lists and bullshit.” Was this clickbait? Of course. Was the piece misleading? Only if you didn’t click on it and assumed that I was taking him literally. But the people coming from that viewpoint are committing the exact same sin they’re accusing me of.
Donald Trump said something which implied that he didn’t know his wife was standing next to him. Odds are very good that’s not what he meant—but coming right out and saying he definitely didn’t mean what he just said is as un-journalistic as assuming his words meant more than they were. We can only take people at their word, and Trump put his foot in his mouth. That’s not our fault. We saw an opportunity for clicks, and hoo-boy, were we right. People shared it like mad from our Facebook page, and it will likely end up being one of our highest-trafficked political posts of the month.
Was this important news? Hell no. But it’s not like this bumped anything vital off our docket. It took me 20 minutes to put that piece together, and we still found time to cover incredibly important news that day—like John McCain effectively killing this version of the GOP’s draconian health care bill and the fact that Facebook is complying with Congressional investigators in the Russia investigation. It was one tidbit that took up minimal bandwidth, and it produced a great return on our efforts. At the end of the day, Paste can’t cover important stories if we can’t keep the lights on.
And who keeps the lights on? You do. By clicking on our articles. There is a breathtaking level of hypocrisy that goes on amongst internet readers (myself included)—where we like to pretend that we only care about the important stuff, and the trivial “lists and bullshit” is beneath us.
Speaking as someone who has access to data on what you read here at Paste, “lists and bullshit” is the majority of what you click on. Whenever Trump gives an interview to a newspaper, excerpting parts of it and putting up a “# Craziest Statements from Trump’s Interview” list is a guaranteed winner. It’s practically like printing money. The number one most trafficked post in politics as of this writing is a list of tweets that I compiled from pissed off Trump supporters. Jason Rhode’s important story citing a study that said there are presently 40 million slaves in the world has 4,000% less clicks than the angry tweets.
Don’t fucking tell me that you only care about “real news” and despise “clickbait.” I have the data to prove you a liar. We all click on “clickbait,” otherwise every single outlet wouldn’t pump it out like mad.
Look at the existence of Buzzfeed. It’s arguably the most profitable news site on the internet and that place is mostly lists and made-up quizzes. The entire history of humankind demonstrates that there is a vast gap between our actions and our words, and the age of the internet has proved that we still haven’t changed. We like think of ourselves in serious New York Times terms, but our internet history proves that we’re far Buzzfeed-ier than we think.
I get being upset about what you perceive to be coverage of frivolous stuff, but Buzzfeed’s business model is basically frivolous nonsense that pays for good reporting—which generates very little revenue in comparison. If we want to publish a piece about slavery that we pretty much know that no one will read, we essentially must pay for that with something that we know people will read, and there are some types of bullshit that we know will work for certain. If you’re still up in arms about us supposedly not covering important stuff, have you clicked on the slavery piece yet?
*checks Google analytics*
What’s the alternative to not publishing some simplistic newsworthy stuff that’s guaranteed to generate revenue? Making you pay a monthly fee to read Paste? Ha! We’d go out of business by the end of the year if we threw up a paywall. Newspapers made a huge mistake not charging for their online editions when the internet debuted—and now we’re all trained to demand free content, so we’re stuck with a business model which rewards stories that people click on. Until we’re all willing to pay for our content up front, this is the model.
So it’s a fine line, trying to find a clickable story that still satisfies the deep burning desire inside every writer to practice serious journalism. I get being disgusted at the media for “chasing clicks,” but keep in mind who’s doing the clicking. It sure as hell isn’t just the media. The laws of supply and demand are unimpeachable, and if the supply of something you despise is out of whack, consider the fact that it wouldn’t exist without enough demand to keep it afloat. The solution to ending “clickbait” is very simple: don’t click on it.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.