An Open Letter to the Washington Post: Please Stop Doing Clickbait

Why is the Washington Post engaging in crappy clickbait content?
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Ben Cohen
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Why is the Washington Post engaging in crappy clickbait content?

To the Editors of the Washington Post, 

As the founder and editor of an independent media outlet, I know just how hard it is to build a sustainable business model around content in the digital age. I know this because I have tried, failed, tried again, failed, then after a good deal of luck, some ingenuity and an amazingly loyal team, slowly built a business that allows us to produce original, thoughtful content and have hundreds of thousands -- and sometimes millions -- of people read it (and in some circumstances, actually pay too). 

As we all know, the Washington Post nearly collapsed after print stopped being a viable model, and the media industry could not build a viable business out of online content. You were saved by Jeff Bezos, a tech billionaire who prevented savage cuts that would have wrecked your reputation as one of the nation's most well respected news outlets, and invested millions into your editorial. It was a great moment for the industry and a show of faith that reputable news outlet was a business worth investing in. 

Since then, the Washington Post's online growth has been fantastic -- you grew from 52 million monthly visitors to 73 million in the past year, no doubt in part due to the massive investment in your technological capabilities and complete redefinition of your business (you are now a self proclaimed "media and technology company"). You even overtook the New York Times in terms of raw traffic -- a remarkable feat that you should be proud of, and your efforts in building a serious business out of branded content is a very positive sign in an industry inundated with crappy banner ads that mostly irritate readers. Given you are a private company, we don't know if all of this means you are hugely profitable, but the signs are good and the Post seems to be on the up and up. 

I say all of this to publicly ask you to stop posting clickbait crap, the likes of which many of us have spent years fighting in order to preserve some dignity in our industry. Just take a look at some of the posts you've been publishing recently:

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And this:

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And this:

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If these these headlines look remarkably familiar, they should do given sites like Buzzfeed, UpWorthy, and Elite Daily took over the internet and seriously threatened our industry with the cheap clickbait you are now running as serious editorial. There are many, many more articles just like this populating your site (and no, we are not linking to them given we don't do that here at the Banter), and one could be forgiven for thinking your new and improved business model is simply a giant scam and a veiled return to an internet era most of us would like to forget.

This is not to say that everything you are doing is clickbait -- there are some fantastic reporters, columnists and video editors at the Post and some truly excellent, in depth content -- but the mere presence of nonsense like the above is a threat to not only yourselves, but the industry as a whole. 

The reason why the value of internet ad rates have declined over the years is not difficult to understand -- with a rapidly growing supply of content, ad space gets less and less valuable when advertisers don't care too much where those ads are being seen. Put simply, the more content there is, the less valuable it becomes. Many sites realized this and began churning out listicle after listicle, and cheap headline after cheap headline with recycled stories hashed together from other sites who actually paid their staff to do real work. With more content, they could combat declining ad revenue by making crap go viral -- and it worked to a large extent, with the king of the listicle Buzzfeed becoming one of the most valuable internet properties ever. 

Of course everyone else suffered as a result of it, with independent media outlets trying to do real journalism left to make do with scraps from ad agencies and the generous contributions from loyal readers. And as someone who has gone through this, I can tell you that it isn't much fun watching your business fall and rise with Facebook's news algorithm and wildly fluctuating programmatic ad rates. We don't have a handy billionaire on hand to see us through the bad times, so we must fight on a day to day basis to survive while still producing content we are proud of

With your huge sums of cash on hand, expanding editorial staff, new team of dynamic engineers, ad reps and sponsored content gurus, you can build a real business out of real content, and in the process help move the industry towards sustainability. You are now in a position to set the agenda in the industry, not bow to the ever changing winds the rest of us are subject to. 

So for the love of God, do something good with your resources and stop with the crap already. 

Sincerely, 

Ben Cohen, Editor, The Daily Banter.