Top 5 Things I Learned from the Watergate Break-In

shadowWhat if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein needed to fight for clicks? Would they have had to break their Watergate stories into a series of listicles? Would that make for better journalism?

Listicles are, of course, the legacy of Buzzfeed, which has turned itself into a social media click machine, and clicks are the currency of the journalism world today. Or, at least that’s what I’m repeatedly reminded by journalists who tell us at HB Agency that if a story can’t get clicks, they’re not interested in writing it. The New York Times also realizes this, having done its own exhaustive study of the Grey Lady’s online presence.

Oddly, journalism can be saved by the very organization that changed it: Buzzfeed! Years ago Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed described the work of the Huffington Post, which he also helped create, as the “mullet strategy,” all business up front with carefully crafted articles and then a party in the back with people posting whatever they wanted. The Huffington Post hated that description and apparently asked him to stop using it.

Buzzfeed is, in many ways, the opposite, with party-like click-bait up front and then important stories in the back written by well-respected reporters and editors. While most people know Buzzfeed for stories about cats, babies with eyebrows and quizzes like “Which Star Wars Character are you?” it’s less known for its longform work, such as the article exposing the fact that the last American journalist has been ousted from Yemen, or how those from Africa seeking Asylum in the U.S. first need to move through Latin America. The last story is not at all in Listicle form and, in fact, runs more than 2500 words. Still, Buzzfeed breaks the Islamic extremist organization ISIS down to a 22-part listicle.

Which begs the question, would the Watergate story have gotten the attention and financial support it deserved when competing for clicks with cat videos?

Essayist Julie Wittes Schlack would probably say “no,” since she wrote the wonderful essay “6 Reasons Listicles Must Die.” Her premise is that some ideas are just too complex to be broken down into a short list with a bunch of funny GIFs. Sure, that works when you’re giving out something fun and light, like the 26 Childhood Moments that Always Made Your Day, but at this point listicles have taken over all forms of journalism, from consumer to B to B tech pubs.

The problem for early-stage companies promoting new ideas is that new, tech-heavy concepts aren’t always popular but still need champions. It doesn’t make the stories about these technologies “bad journalism” or even unpopular, it just means that the people haven’t fully understood yet what these technologies are about and how they can change lives. In 2004 this meant helping people understand social networking, in 2007 people needed help understanding Twitter and today they need help grasping the the benefits of the “connected home” or the “Internet of Things.”

Of course, maybe listicles can say it all. Otherwise, why would we have “10 Fascinating Facts about Watergate 42 Years Later”?


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