The most-read article I ever wrote was “No hostages, only birds in Wards Road Walmart.”
Thanks to Reddit, this story about a pest control practice mistaken for a terrorist takeover garnered thousands upon thousands of views.
Which is too bad, considering how much more important some of my other stories were.
In my days a business journalist, I wrote about business owners battling for survival while the city closed their street for months at a time. I wrote about homeowners facing foreclosure and the fear of impending homelessness. I analyzed the millions of dollars of federal stimulus money that had flowed into the Lynchburg region with few jobs to show for it.
All of these stories, and many more, were many times more important than a somewhat humorous mis-interpretation of an animal control situation at Walmart. But that story and headline grabbed attention and appealed to a wider geography. “No hostages, only birds in Wards Road Walmart” is infinitely more interesting than “Fifth Street businesses struggle to survive.”
NPR is working on a way to measure not only clicks and page views, but also caring. According to Poynter, the proposed “Carebot” would measure social engagement, such as shares, along with the time that users spend on a page and other metrics. It sounds like a good way to separate clickbait—which you clicked on because of an exaggerated headline and a thumbnail image with a drawn circle, and then left upon realizing it was pointless—from the articles that you read from beginning to end and think about and talk about online.
Of course, it wouldn’t be perfect. For example, Carebot might judge that I care very deeply about Poynter’s story about Carebot; I opened it up and left it open in my browser for probably about a week before I finally got around to blogging about it.
But the concept sounds solid. It would be great to see journalism get rewarded more for caring and less for easy-but-quick clicks.
Now, if only someone could invent a way to reward stories based on how much people should care.