For years, media chased the clicks promised by Facebook; now the social media giant threatens to destroy them 

Under the thumb

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It's perhaps the perfect summation of the internet age: a website that started because a college kid wanted to rank which co-eds were hotter became a global goliath powerful enough to influence the fate of the news industry itself.

When Facebook first launched its "News Feed" in 2006, it didn't have anything to do with news. At least, not how we think of it. This was the website that still posted a little broken-heart icon when you changed your status from "In a Relationship" to "Single."

The News Feed was intended to be a list of personalized updates from your friends. When Facebook was talking about "news stories," it meant, in the words of Facebook's announcement, like "when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again."

But in 2009, Facebook introduced its iconic "like" button. Soon, instead of showing posts in chronological order, the News Feed began showing you the popular posts first.

And that made all the difference.

Facebook didn't invent going viral – grandmas with AOL accounts were forwarding funny emails and chain letters when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school – but its algorithm amplified it. Well-liked posts soared. Unpopular posts simply went unseen.

Google had an algorithm too. So did YouTube.

Journalists were given a new directive: If you wanted readers to see your stories, you had to play by the algorithm's rules. Faceless, mystery formulas had replaced the stodgy newspaper editor as the gatekeeper of information.

So when the McClatchy Company – a chain that owns 31 daily papers – launched its reinvention strategy last year, knowing how to get Facebook traffic was central.

"Facebook has allowed us to get our journalism out to hundreds of millions more people than it would have otherwise," says McClatchy's vice president of news, Tim Grieve, a fast-talking former Politico editor. "It has forced us, and all publishers, to sharpen our game to make sure we're writing stories that connect with people."

With digital ad rates tied to web traffic, the incentives in the modern media landscape could be especially perverse: Write short, write lots. Pluck heartstrings or stoke fury. In short, be more like Upworthy.

A site filled with multi-sentence emotion-baiting headlines, Upworthy begged you to click by promising that you would be shocked, outraged or inspired – but not telling you why. (One example: "His first 4 sentences are interesting. The 5th blew my mind. And made me a little sick.")

By November of 2013, Upworthy was pulling in 88 million unique visitors a month. With Facebook's help, the formula spread.

A McClatchy-owned daily newspaper headlined a short crime story about the arrest of a carjacker this way: "Four people, two cars, one gun. What happens next?" Another story asking for tips about a recent spree of indecent exposure was headlined, "She was looking at her phone, but the man wanted her to watch him masturbate."

Even magazines like Time and Newsweek – storied publications that sent photojournalists to war zones – began pumping out articles like, "Does Reese Witherspoon Have 3 Legs on Vanity Fair's Cover?" and "Trump's Hair Loss Drug Causes Erectile Dysfunction."

Newsweek's publisher went beyond clickbait; the magazine was actually buying traffic through pirated video sites, allegedly engaging in ad fraud. Last week, Newsweek senior writer Matthew Cooper resigned in disgust after several Newsweek editors and reporters who'd written about the publisher's series of scandals were fired. He heaped contempt on an organization that had installed editors who "recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness" and left him "despondent not only for Newsweek but for the other publications that don't heed the lessons of this publication's fall."

Mathew Ingram, who covers digital media for Columbia Journalism Review, says such tactics might increase traffic for a while. But readers hate it. Sleazy tabloid shortcuts gives you a sleazy tabloid reputation.

"Short-term you can make a certain amount of money," Ingram says. "Long-term you're basically setting fire to your brand."

One strategy throughout the industry is to downplay the location of a story: readers in other markets are more likely to click if they don't know it happened thousands of miles away.

Robinson, the Tacoma reporter, says local cops have complained about crime stories from elsewhere that were being shared on Facebook by local TV stations without context – worrying local readers were being misled into thinking they happened in Tacoma. Here in Orlando, citizens often send viral videos they see on Facebook to police in the mistaken belief that they are local crimes.

Michelle Guido, public information officer at Orlando Police Department, says this happened recently with a "very graphic" video. "It was a child sex crime. People were sending it to us because they weren't sure if it was a local case. It wasn't, and the man was arrested recently," she says, "but that is the kind of thing we see. Often people want to report crimes and don't realize they are not in Orlando PD jurisdiction."

Grieve, the McClatchy executive, says that he doesn't ever want to sensationalize a story. But he also says that the "internet and social media are noisy places," and papers have to sell their stories aggressively to be heard over the din.

"If you're writing stories that aren't getting read," Grieve says, "you're not a journalist – you're keeping a journal."

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