Cats versus bombs. Can both survive?

A recent Press Gazette survey found that over 200 out of 700 online journalists in an anonymous survey have grave concerns about the “dumbing down” of content on their websites. Many expressed concerns over the “declining quality” of online journalism with one deputy editor asking: “Is there a future for real journalism online in an era when hits (and cat videos) have become the holy grail?”

Media specialist Paul Blanchard, who analysed these claims in a recent podcast, says ultimately it’s a “quantity over quality” issue and asked successful long form freelancer for The Guardian, Simon Parkin, if videos of cats acting like Hitler will eventually be the undoing of his trade?

The answer, says Parkin, lies not only with the consumers of the content, but ultimately with the advertisers. “Click page content is fine when you’re going to any old advertiser saying we have x number of hits. But if you’re pitching to the likes of Cartier and other higher end advertisers – who are actually concerned about the quality of your content – it becomes much more complicated than the mere volume of people visiting your website.”

He backs his argument by saying people who watch populist cat videos will in all probability not be able to give you the name of the website they have seen it on. “This does not forge or fortify a positive reputation for your website. A meaningful piece of investigative journalism illuminating an important subject will attract the right kind of advertisers and audience.”

A counterargument is offered by Sara Custer, deputy editor at PIE News, a website with in-depth analysis and news for professionals in international education, who says click page content and long form are not necessarily mutually exclusive. She references BuzzFeed who started out with short form lists with the exclusive aim to maximise website hits. Things have now moved on with BuzzFeed one of the websites ploughing significant resources into long form journalism. 

“I’d argue that you can do both. BuzzFeed now offer cat videos and the serious long form, like an in-depth analysis of the dangers of the next Chernobyl. In a sense they are the bridge that will see the cat audience make the transition to read long form.”

Both Parkin and Custer agree that the current threats to long form are the constant pressures to increase the frequency of uploads (the volume versus uniqueness game) and the influence of public relations (i.e. PR lead stories).

Blanchard, who runs his own PR agency, says the second argument is actually growing more and more outdated in the age of digital. “The (inter)net has given us (PRs) online publications, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts and a completely level playing field. It allows the public to hear a plurality of voices and views without buying a newspaper or a subscription to a magazine… The press will always be vitally important in PR, but they’re just not as important as the public. And today, if PR clients want to reach the public they don’t necessarily need to go through a journalist to do it.”

As for the constant pressure to increase frequency? This remains firmly in the hands of the journalists. Those who can maintain a high frequency and retain good quality long form will ultimately be the most successful. That’s no mean feat, but that’s the reality.

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