Hear me out here. (I don’t have stats, so this is purely an opinion piece based on anecdotal experiences.)
I tried, recently, to access an article on the New York Times. It’s a reasonably well-respected publication. I wanted to use them as a source for an article. It gave me a glimpse of the content I was after, and then it asked me to create an account. I had no option to just not make an account and continue reading. My first inclination is to drop it and go somewhere else. My second is to make an account with Google, which they helpfully provide as an option in their sign-up pop-up. Fine, whatever.
I make the account. It auto-checks their newsletter sign-up form, which it can send me because I made the mistake of giving them my email address to read a free article. Oh well, can’t back out now. I uncheck the box and click ‘continue’. I doubt that they’re not going to send me trash, but I decide to wait and see. It doesn’t take me back to the article I wanted to read, it takes me to their signup page for newsletters, and then another sign-up page after that, which I didn’t even read because, you know, I’m only doing this to access the article I clicked on via Google. They’re at the top of the SEO, and yet it takes five steps to actually access the content they’re giving for ‘free’.
Whoop de doo, I’m finally back at the page, after everything. I don’t even question why they want me to make the account so bad until later, when I begin to wonder if the ads I’m seeing are related to that article. Incredible.
Can you see where this is starting to go wrong?
News – It’s important
Maybe you’ve noticed that nobody seems to read the article they post on social media, only the headline. The comments are full of misinformation, assumptions based on the headline, and other things that tell you they didn’t read the article that was posted. ‘Why?”, you think. You click on the article, and it warns you – before it even loads any other content – that you have two free articles left. Then, the article loads, but the pictures take a second longer, and in that second, another pop-up appears on your screen, asking for your email. You close that, and then you try to read, but by then, the rest of the ads have loaded, and the page jerks around as they go.
If it’s an especially desperate site, it may be chugging as it tries to load a video for you in the bottom corner, which, of course, obscures the text you’re trying to read. The video player won’t let you close it until it’s done loading, but then it starts trying to play another ad. The video player is lagging so badly that your mouse is visibly dragging, or you’ve lost the ability to scroll on mobile.
You close the website.
This is why nobody reads the article.
The website has wounded itself by trying to squeeze every last ounce of consumption out of viewers in the first ten seconds it’s open.
If it’s acknowledged that nobody’s reading the articles, then the headline can be anything. If the article clarifies, then it’s not technically a lie – users just didn’t read their explanation.
Let’s take something I saw recently: “Plants Feel Pain, New Study Says”. Now, that’s kind of horrifying to imagine. This is a very attention-grabbing article. I don’t want to spend five hours waiting for the website to load, so I click the comments, and all the top comments are some variation of “the website’s wrong, the study’s bad, the headline is oversimplified” and why. ‘Plants can tell when something is eating them, but it’s all chemical interactions. The plant isn’t suffering, it’s just rerouting resources to the damaged parts.’ And that’s it – it’s chemically responding to damage, it isn’t experiencing what we, as animals, know as ‘pain’.
I realize I’ve transferred the intellectual responsibility of reading the article onto someone else with a better ad blocker than me. If a bad actor really, really wanted to, they could say that plants do feel pain the way we do, and use it to sell an idea, like “Vegetarianism is inherently less moral than omnivorism. In fact, we should all switch to a totally meat-based diet, because the animals aren’t tortured by fruit-picking like the plants are.” Big companies are on social media too – and now everyone who checks to comments is greeted by an advertisement from Big Beef.
If Big Beef got there first, and they get other affiliated accounts to react positively to their comment, they’ll stay at the top even as people argue with them, just by the nature of sites like Reddit. Their message reinforces what some people want to hear, and if casual viewers didn’t read the article, they may interact by upvoting or liking the comment and moving on without even looking at the other comments.
Even worse, if people scrolling by don’t click the comments, and they just see “Plants Feel Pain”, they’ll let that sit in their mind without questioning that conclusion at all.
Does it make sense? Kind of. And that’s the worst thing about it – the headline is believable, attention-grabbing. It presents you with a conclusion that feels right.
Ads. Most free-to-use websites run off of ads. Donation-heavy sites, like Wikipedia, don’t insist that you sign up to read their articles. Regular sites that have knowledge you don’t need aren’t so insistent on sign-up forms. For news sites, recipe sites, and other websites with knowledge you do need, ads and sign-up forms get pretty freakin’ ridiculous. What are you going to do, leave? Most of the time, no! So they’ll slap any number of ads along the side, and cookies into your browser, because they know that won’t drive most viewers off.
Even if they jerk the page around, even if the site has pop-ups, most users experience sunk cost fallacy, and they’ll stick around and wait for it all to resolve itself. Newsletters are just an easier way to get you to look at them in your email box – and they’ll make you think it was your idea, when all you wanted to do was read the article!
And what do you do when you want to view news? And not any news, your favorite brand of news. The news has become so heavily politicized that users now care about who they get the story from, because Fox will tell a story differently than CNN. News sites know these users aren’t going to leave to go to another website, so they can put as many ads, pop-up videos, and other nonsense as they want because those brand users are unusually tolerant of it. People who don’t care may leave, but they’ve cultured a captive audience that won’t. Especially big sites that have a good reputation know users won’t leave their site either – and you get the world’s most annoying content gate as a result.
These news sign-up forms funnel people into less-reputable sites without forms, or more reputable sites that they have an account with. Basic facts aren’t shared between news stories, and when stories get posted to social media, they’re relying on the strength of the headline alone to either get views or spread an agenda. Nobody wants to deal with all the trash these sites have packed themselves with, so they stay on social media and hope someone else comments with the missing information, because they won’t do it themselves.
This is terrible for good, reliable news. And it starts with those unskippable forms. News stations should be trying to build loyalty with good, reliable reporting, not sign-ups and popularity contests.