Questioning clickbait: The return of long-form content

Look at BuzzFeed at any given time of day, and you’ll see a host of enticing quizzes and timely listicles like the clickbait below.

Screenshot from, 1/16/2015

Who can resist such easy-to-digest content? Not many of us, apparently. (I am Thing One, by the way.) BuzzFeed is now among the top 10 U.S. sites for traffic, and news organizations have been adopting similar content strategies to improve their daily numbers and bolster ad revenue. In our research, we’ve studied how the Christian Science Monitor incorporated such items into its content mix to grow its traffic tenfold. Even former NYT editor Bill Keller acknowledged the lure of listicles in a recent interview.

But, as appealing as multimillion-visitor traffic is, it is ephemeral. In today’s environment, such quick-hit success doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term engaged audiences, the ones that advertisers and content producers so dearly desire. The clickbait audiences are selfish and distracted, eager to find the next flashy app or sweet click-candy to share with their own social-media networks. They are fickle and easy to lose. Just ask Zynga, purveyor of the once-ubiquitous FarmVille and Words With Friends.

So it is that the conversation has returned to long-form content and the value of original investigative reporting. BuzzFeed itself touts a news section and a column of headlines on its front page; its banner today focused on Secretary of State John Kerry in France. And its investigative unit recently celebrated its first year of operation, with several high-profile investigations under its belt.

As unit editor (and Pulitzer Prize-winner) Mark Schoofs noted in his year-end memo to the staff:

As thrilling and fulfilling as this year has been, it is, of course, just the beginning. The stories that you have planned for the upcoming year are even better. They have the potential to root out horrific harm to defenseless people and to expose corruption on a global scale. As one of my mentors, Paul Steiger, would say, these are stories with moral force.

“… root out horrific harm to defenseless people … expose corruption on a global scale …” Those remind me of the reportorial adage, “Comfort the afflicted; afflict the comfortable.” It seems investigative journalism hasn’t lost its luster, even in the digital age.

Indeed, a recent spate of staff hires at major online outlets echoes BuzzFeed’s long-range strategy of burnishing its journalistic cred:

  • Politico, known for its feverish 24-7 coverage of national politics, lured media critic Jack Shafer to its offices after hiring Michael Grunwald and Michael Crowley of Time. The apparent goal: a push toward deeper, more analytical coverage.
  • The Huffington Post just picked up three senior staffers from The New Republic to — as founder Ariana Huffington put it — “bring long-form journalism to a new audience.”
  • Upworthy recently hired Amy O’Leary, former deputy editor of digital operations at The New York Times, as its editorial director.

The good news for traditional news outlets? Most already have such journalistic talent in-house, if they only choose to nurture and capitalize upon that strength. Too many organizations are leaping into clickbait strategies at the expense of traditional journalism; instead, they should be used to complement that harder-to-produce, more valuable content. Investigative journalism can have long-tail value and keep audiences coming back over the long term. But leaders and managers have to have the patience for that audience to build slowly and meaningfully over time.

Perhaps when crafting our strategies, we should channel a little more Lorax, and a little less Cat in the Hat.