© Daniel Pudles

“News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising,” runs the journalists’ mantra, variously ascribed to publishers William Randolph Hearst and Lord Northcliffe. If so, news is being deluged.

In 2014, the fastest-growing form of online “content” is an epidemic of heartwarming videos (“One Mother Did Something Illegal To Help Her Kids, And This Cop Was Totally, Unexpectedly Cool”), funny lists (“33 Reasons Miley Cyrus Was Actually The Best Thing To Happen To 2013”) and click-bait headlines from sites such as BuzzFeed, Upworthy and ViralNova.

Rather than being found on news sites or through search engines, they flourish on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. While reporters pride themselves on digging out bad news and awkward facts, these stories often appeal to positive emotions – affection, admiration and awe. They are packaged to make people share content with friends, and to spread like a virus.

Some of this is advertising – BuzzFeed designs viral campaigns for companies that are difficult to tell apart from its other output. Much of it has an advertising-like aspect. Viral producers devote as much effort to marketing content as to concocting it, like an advertising agency married to a newsroom.

That upsets many journalists: complaints range from the blurring of the line between editorial and advertising to the way faked videos and Photoshopped pictures have at times become viral sensations without being fact-checked. Upworthy’s efforts to tug at readers’ heartstrings enrage sceptical editors.

“The crowd will eventually choose the juicy truth over a heartwarming hoax,” Nick Denton, publisher of the Gawker news and gossip sites (and a former Financial Times journalist), declared defiantly in December as BuzzFeed’s traffic overtook his own.

But I find it hard not to laugh at the moral outrage of news publishers whose muckraking is outflanked by cute cat videos. As long as media buyers and advertisers do not distinguish among consumers who find news through search engines and those who are drawn to entertainment through Facebook likes and Twitter mentions, all free content will compete equally and volume will win.

The reality is that Gawker and sites such as Mail Online, drawn from the UK tabloid tradition, face being hoist by their own petard. Having defined success by how many clicks they gain for sensational stories, they find that someone else has invented a better traffic trap (although the fast-growing Mail Online still beats BuzzFeed on number of visitors).

The inventor is Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post and founder of BuzzFeed. From an early experience of a viral email exchange with Nike when he tried to have the word “sweatshop” printed on a pair of running shoes, he has become a pioneer of digital word-of-mouth.

His insight was that sharing works differently from search. Search is a way to discover information, whereas sharing is prompted by emotion. People read all kinds of material but they mostly share stories or videos that create positive reactions, such as laughter; or actively negative ones, such as anger.

One study of 7,000 New York Times articles by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that sad stories were the least shared because sadness is a low-arousal, negative state. People were more likely to share positive stories because it was a way to show generosity and boost their reputations. Sharing pleasant things in public made them appear nice themselves.

This is enough to make old hands tear their hair out (“What works in viral is fake piety,” says one); and it has combined with a shift to video as broadband speeds increase. The internet, originally a means for academics to share information, is becoming primarily an entertainment medium where a juicy headline on a video is text enough.

Not all viral content is trite and shallow. The techniques pioneered by Mr Peretti can, like advertising campaigns, be applied to all kinds of products. Upworthy, which drew 88m unique users in November, according to Quantcast, uses them to lure people to videos on liberal causes such as gay marriage and poverty alleviation, and persuade them to donate money. “Content on important topics is often dry, like the Brussels sprouts part of the meal that you have to choke down,” says Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy. “We thought: why does it have to be that way? Why can’t you make it taste good, so people want to eat?”

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed has stepped up its journalistic efforts, adding in-depth reporting on politics and business to its fluffier material. It has 140 reporters, started a UK site in 2013 and will add an investigative journalism unit this year.

Virality could eventually strike its limits. People may tire of clicking on Upworthy’s saccharine headlines (“Watch This 6-Year-Old Give You The Most Adorable Guilt Trip Ever”). BuzzFeed’s lists of “10 Adorable Photos” and “40 Astonishing Facts” could go out of fashion.

News publishers should not count on it. Not only are BuzzFeed and others growing fast but they are flexible enough to adjust tactics in response to audience demand. They can also expand around the core of viral content, as BuzzFeed has done. Like television networks with news divisions, they can combine the serious and the amusing.

Ultimately, entertainment is a bigger business than news. That was true of the analogue world and there is no reason to think it will change online. The lesson of the viral epidemic for news publishers is that, if you battle for attention with entertainment, you lose.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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