Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Why KHQ and KXLY often publish the exact same clickbait-y articles on Facebook

Posted By on Tue, Feb 13, 2018 at 1:24 PM

click to enlarge KHQ and KXLY are rivals — but both direct their readers to the same viral content site using the exact same Facebook posts - DANIEL WALTERS COLLAGE
  • Daniel Walters collage
  • KHQ and KXLY are rivals — but both direct their readers to the same viral content site using the exact same Facebook posts

Pop quiz, hotshot: Which Spokane TV station, in the middle of the day on Feb. 10,  posted a Facebook link to an article titled "Husband Gets Whole Town To Deliver 500 Roses to His Wife on Her Last Day of Chemotherapy," under the comment "This is so sweet"?

KHQ? Or rival KXLY?

Trick question. It's both. Same article. Same headline. Posted about the same time.  And it isn't just a crazy coincidence. It's happened dozens of times.

KHQ and KXLY are rivals. They compete for scoops and ratings. KHQ is owned by the Cowles Company, the same company that owns the Spokesman-Review and the River Park Square shopping center. KXLY is owned by Morgan Murphy Media, based out of Wisconsin.

But both pump out a steady stream of identical links to identical stories on Facebook:

— Headline: "This Healthy 20-Year-Old Mom Of 2 Died From Fast-Acting Flu" (Facebook tease: "Scary—here are the symptoms to watch out for.")

— "Why Eggs May Be To Blame For This Year's Flu Vaccine Flop" ("This is interesting.")

— "Why People Are Calling This Animal 'The Most Beautiful Horse In The World" (“These horses are absolutely stunning.”)

— "Why you should NEVER leave your Child's Winter Coat On in The Car." (“This mistake could be the difference between your child’s life and death.”)

The rose-bearing husband, of course, wasn't from Spokane. The healthy mom who died suddenly wasn't from Spokane. The gorgeous horse wasn't a beautiful Spokane horse. In each case, you have to click to find that out. But that's not new.

It's not unusual for media outlets to republish, with permission, non-local content from wire services like the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times on their own sites. Local TV stations often publish stories from their national networks like ABC or CBS.

But this is a bit more unusual: None of those stories actually link to KXLY or KHQ's website.
Instead, they send readers to "Simplemost,"  a national service that funnels particularly clickable content to TV station Facebook pages throughout the country. 

In other words, KXLY and KHQ don't even get web traffic directed to their sites through Simplemost posts on Facebook.

So what's the advantage?

When the Inlander sat down with KXLY News Director Melissa Luck last month to talk about how Facebook was changing the news business, we asked her about the station's frequent use of Simplemost Facebook content.

Some of it has to do with the Facebook algorithm, she says.

In general, the more viewers "like" or share content on a given Facebook page, the higher it shows up in their Facebook News Feeds.

A rising tide lifts all boats, Luck says.

"The more engaging content is, the more your other content will show up in feeds," Luck says. "We know those posts are going to be engaging. We know those are posts our audiences are looking for.  You, [the viewer], could go out and find that content. But why not get it from a page you are following, from a local news station that you have a relationship with?"

In a December 2017 post, KHQ made a similar argument about the value of Simplemost to their readers.

"In our desire to bring you more stories that can not only impact your life, but possibly make it easier, we subscribe to a service called 'Simplemost," the KHQ post explained. "If you’ve already begun to see these posts, you’ve seen them because Facebook has identified them as relevant to your interests. Continuing to interact with them means KHQ will remain an important part of your local news feed on Facebook."

In practicality, it's often the sort of viral content stuff that the Onion spinoff Clickhole relentlessly parodies with satirical headlines like, "Probably Bullshit But Still A Little Scary: Ethan Is Claiming That His Super Soaker Is Filled With Pee."

But often, it works. A Simplemost post on KHQ's page about pickle-flavored cupcakes got over 300 Facebook shares. One about giant mattresses got 307.

Often, these posts can beat out a news station's actual news content. A recent KXLY Facebook post, “Investigation into school shooting plot finds guns, maps, potential targets,” about an averted school shooting in Richland, Washington, had one Facebook share within about four hours.

By contrast, a Simplemost post, "Star Wars Fans: You Can Now Turn Your Windshield Wipers Into Light Sabers,” posted 15 minutes later, quickly racked up more than 100 shares. Today it has over 230. At KHQ's Facebook page, the same post has racked up 310 shares.

And not just TV stations that use Simplemost: Lee Enterprises, which owns the Missoulian, the Billings Gazette, and now, ironically, the Missoula Independent alt-weekly, syndicates a feed of Simplemost content on their websites as well.

"What the f—- is this," Missoula Independent columnist Dan Brooks commented on Twitter when I brought up the Missoulian's Simplemost page.

"Thank you for clicking, reader," Independent journalist Derek Brouwer quipped. "We appreciate your pageviews."

Facebook, however, can be a particularly crucial tool for local TV news stations.

TV news is extremely personality-driven, Luck says. Viewers often tune into evening newscasts not just because of the quality of the journalism, but because of the individual personalities on their screens.

Anchors and reporters have long used Facebook as a way to connect personally with their viewers.

"It was developing a personal connection with the audience," Luck says. "Over the years it's become a much more of a news delivery system."

It's handed TV news a faster way to report: Instead of knocking on hundreds of doors to find someone who, say, has the flu, before the 5 pm newscast, they can just ask the question on Facebook — both quickly finding a source and advertising their evening broadcast to viewers.

Facebook has given TV stations a way to instantly get feedback, instead of needing to wait for viewer survey results.

"It’s safe to say, in our community, that if hundreds of people are sharing an article, there is a community interest in that story," Luck says.

TV stations' efforts to capture Facebook engagement has worked: Compare the sheer number of comments on a local TV station's Facebook News Feed with, say, the number of comments on the Inlander's Facebook stories.

"If it's exposed more people to news in general, it's a good thing," Luck says about Facebook. "If this is where we have to get 'em, this is where we have to get 'em."

But as they pursue Facebook clicks, the sheer quantity of posts local TV stations put out can be staggering. In one sampling of a single week last summer, KXLY posted 210 times on Facebook, KHQ 249 times, and KREM 250 times.

TV news viewers, Luck says, want to see local news, big national news stories, and quirky made-for-Facebook stories in their feed. The trick is striking the right balance.

"You want engagement," she says. "You don’t want to skew what’s happening the world."

“I think there are stations and organizations who want the engagement so badly that they put something out that really is truly 'click-bait.'"

But some viewers consider Simplemost a source of precisely that sort of sleazy clickbait.

"Really disappointed to see KXLY partner with Simplemost to post clickbait on your FB feed," one Twitter user asked Luck in December. "Does not support your mission as a credible news source."

Luck responded by saying she was sorry the viewer felt that way, and encouraged the viewer to call her if she wanted to discuss the issue.

Luck describes Simplemost's posts as "really good social content."

"It's things like, here's how much sleep kids need to get a night," Luck says. "It's valuable. It's good social content. People interact with it. But it's also good information."

KXLY can control those posts, she notes, choosing which ones to post and which ones to avoid. The Simplemost links KXLY and KHQ choose can often differ.

Simplemost is run by the E.W. Scripps Company, a media conglomerate that owns 33 television stations and 34 radio stations across 17 states, including Idaho. It's the same company that killed the alt-weekly in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Simplemost describes its editorial goal as providing women with "with the news that can impact their lives, along with ideas and tips to help make things just a little easier" and insists it's "focused on telling interesting stories that inform and delight our readers."

There are recipes and little lifestyle tips and banal celebrity news stories like "Princess Diana’s Niece is Grown Up—And Looks Just like Her Aunt."

There are stories that sound designed to spark debate: "Is It Ok To Put Your Child On a Leash? Answer—It’s Complicated."

But often, these stories seem to be more focused on, well, making moms terrified. If you're not careful, here's how you could die. Or, if you're a bad mom, here's how you could kill your child.

"This is an important read for all parents," a Facebook post says to introduce a story titled,  "This X-Ray of a Grape Stuck In a Child's Throat Illustrates a Deadly Choking Hazard."

One particularly common way for Simplemost to get people to click on Facebook posts is with the phrase, "Scary—here are the symptoms to watch out for."

That same phrase was used for the Simplemost stories,  “A 37-Year-Old Mother Of 2 Died 3 Days After Flu Diagnosis—And Now Her Family Is Urging Others To Get Flu Shots,” “Bacteria In Raw Oysters Recently Killed A Woman — Here’s What You Need To Know,” and “Healthy 20-Year-Old Woman Didn’t Know She Was Having A Stroke."

A nearly identical this-is-scary teaser was used for the story "Grieving parents speak out after their healthy son died from sepsis."

“This mom has a super important message to share," says a Facebook post introducing Simplemost story headlined, "Breastfeeding Mom Warns Other Parents After Her Newborn Dies of Dehydration."
That post earned a few angry comments from both KHQ and KXLY viewers, calling the post misleading and scaremongering.

"If you are going to share a frightening story, at least give parents good resources to follow it," one viewer commented.

"So now you take other places' articles (that suck)?" another wrote. "What are you trying to do, scare the young mothers?"

In other cases, Simplemost posts look eerily similar to, well, ads.

Like, say, "8 Free Perks You Get With Amazon Prime That You Probably Don’t Know About," a Simplemost article that begins with lines like "Amazon Prime is a great service....  Personally, I’ve noticed that I now only buy items that are available through Amazon Prime."

"We've found benefits that you get for free as a member of Amazon Prime," KHQ and KXLY both enthused in November, both linking to the year-old Simplemost post.

("Adverts being passed off as news," one KHQ viewer snarked.)

Posts like these are one reason why Raycom Media's VP of News Steve Ackerman sent a memo to TV stations last summer, chiding them for violating their editorial guidelines by providing free advertising to businesses on Facebook without providing context.

"We are aware that a third party (Simplemost) has been distributing some of this content—we are simultaneously taking steps to better review that content before it appears on your social media platforms," he says.

While a disclaimer on the Simplemost page claims sales and advertising do not affect article selection, it also admits that "Simplemost may receive a small commission from the purchase of any products or services through an affiliate link to the retailer's website."

But with the new Facebook algorithm, expect to see even more Simplemost posts. The new algorithm rewards local publishers like local TV news stations and, in particular, rewards posts that get a lot of engagement, like shares or comments. 

So if you complain about Simplemost posts in the KHQ or KXLY comments? That counts as engagement.

Your complaints just make Simplemost stronger.

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