Do we really need more sites for up-voting viral content? The Independent seems to think so

Anyone who spends longer than an hour or two browsing the web, or scrolling through their feed on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, likely comes across dozens of links to so-called “viral” content sites like ViralNova, BuzzFeed or Upworthy. Do newspapers really need to start creating their own similar websites in order to try and cash in on this wave of clickbait? The British daily The Independent seems to think that they do, so it recently launched a site called i100, complete with short news bits, celebrity gossip and large “upvote” buttons.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review and other profiles of the site, the idea behind it was to take some of the content from the Independent (owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev) and make it more digestible, and also to give some of the content from the paper’s sister publication — a product with shorter stories, known simply as i — a place to live online.
In an email to beta testers before the launch earlier this month, the paper said: “Because i100 is from the same newsroom as the i paper and The Independent, you can trust us to take our facts very seriously (even the amusing ones).”
After spending some time with the site, however, I could only find one story out of about a dozen that originally came from the Independent and was repurposed. The rest were the same kind of catchy clickbait you would find at many other sites, and in many cases they were rewritten versions of stories from Mashable or The Daily Mail (a master of the clickbait genre) with a “hat tip” link. Titles included things like “Giraffe killed after hitting head on motorway bridge.”
The idea of having a website where editors can summarize or highlight longer stories from the newspaper, or pull important information such as charts and graphs out of them, makes a lot of sense. A lot of useful information that readers might be interested in likely gets lost inside longer investigative or feature pieces. At Trinity Mirror, editor Martin Belam uses viral design and other tricks on his site Ampp3d to take data-driven stories and make them more palatable to a broad audience. But i100 seems designed to drive clicks, period, with items about ephemera like the fruit seller who dresses his peaches in miniature underwear.
Last year, the Washington Post launched a site called KnowMore, with shorter and more shareable items — and it drove some substantial amounts of traffic, becoming the most-read part of the entire site in just three weeks. But the point behind its content (at least in the beginning) was to use briefs and charts to point people towards longer pieces with more background and context, not just to drive as many clicks and pageviews as possible.
Part of what is so depressing about sites like i100 is that they assume readers, especially younger readers, only want to read tiny briefs with large images of celebrities, and aren’t interested in serious topics or going deeper on important stories. I think that badly underestimates an entire generation. In any case, the market for noisy, graphics-driven sites that try to lure clicks seems to be relatively saturated. Don’t newspapers have better things to do?
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / mj007