Former PM killed by UFOs

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James Somers, one of the better emerging writers weighing in on the nature of human resource in the digital economy, says in an article of his this year, titled “How the Like Button Ruined the Internet,”:

“You don’t have to spend more than 10 minutes talking to a purveyor of content on the web to realize that the question keeping them up at night is how to improve the performance of their stories against some engagement metric. And it’s easy enough to see the logical consequence of this incentive: At the bottom of article pages on nearly every major content site is an “Around the Web” widget powered either by Outbrain or Taboola. These widgets are aggressively optimized for clicks. (People do, in fact, click on that stuff. I click on that stuff.) And you can see that it’s mostly sexy, sexist, and sensationalist garbage. The more you let engagement metrics drive editorial, the more your site will look like a Taboola widget. That’s the drain it all circles toward.

And yet we keep designing software to give publishers better feedback about how their content is performing so that they can give people exactly what they want. This is true not just for regular media but for social media too—so that even an 11-year-old gets to develop a sophisticated sense of exactly what kind of post is going to net the most Likes.”

That’s the drain is all circles toward. Heavy words.

We have seen it in action. In the Politico profile of Tina Brown, the iconic former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, writer Luke ‘O Brian talks about how even the with-it Brown seemed not to be able get how the times had changed. A far cry from the mix of high and low culture that she had in Vanity Fair, and wanted to emulate in the Daily Beast (which had merged with Newsweek), the new currency was low-low.

Just look at the type of content Time magazine is pushing on its Facebook page.

“This Little Girl Stealing Prince Harry’s Popcorn Is Everything” was top post when the writer checked. And Time magazine’s social presence is doing well, if one were to take a look at the numbers.

The problem is prevalent in Pakistan as well, of course. You, the reader, might have seen it in the social media presence of the very newspaper you are reading right now.

And it certainly had made its way to our own “grey lady” newspaper, the iconic and thoughtful Dawn, perhaps the Pakistani Fourth Estate’s best foot forward.

Consider the accompanying photo. The story in question is not about Nawaz Sharif. It is about former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Strictly speaking, the text did not specify the name of the Prime Minister in question, so the admins of the Dawn page are off the hook. Or are they?

Journalists worth their salt sneer at the clickbait that the likes of ZemTV.com have at display, but the zeitgeist seems to be taking over their own organisations. Expect ZemTV-like content in the near future. “Wazeer-e-Azam Abbasi giraftar? Noon League walay sar pakarr kar beth gaye. Click keejiye, aur jaaniye….”

Technically speaking, this headline would only be a shade different from the Dawn story above. Because the question mark can get them off the hook.

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None of the above should be taken as an argument to revert to the no-nonsense journalism of “the good old days.” It is that lot of journalists that have contributed to the problem that the news media finds itself all over the world; even more than the clickbait Artful Dodgers. Calling any and all bits of colour in news items or headlines “unprofessional” is the sort of behaviour that continues to kill news organisations. Such churlishness couldn’t fly even before the brave new dystopia of the internet and social media.

In Pakistan, the likes of individuals like Javed Chaudhry, Waseem Badami and Hassan Nisar have social media accounts bigger, much bigger at times, than those of the very organisations that employ them in the first place! All of these have managed to do so because of sketchy headlines.

In this changed ecosystem, where a site run by a couple of angsty kids aggregating content and slanting it to get more hits can rival the clout of a fully functional media house (in at least some social media metrics), the latter are getting more and more nervous. The numbers are not adding up and the incentive for spending money on (thorough) investigative reports keeps falling.