Today there was a Twitter fuss over a post suggesting that Woolworths would soon return to UK high streets. The story was not true.

However, the social post picked up a lot of traction and it wasn’t long before national papers were writing it up, on their websites.

It reminded me of my time in a newsroom for a UK tabloid, when I was covering science and tech.

For those of you who don’t know, news websites are fucked. Specifically fucked are those belonging to old media brands that derive a lot of their money from display ads. In this day and age there are too many ad blockers and too many people who have “ad blindness” to the specific size and shape of most online adverts.

The only way to make money on a site like this now is to push an enormous volume of traffic to it on a daily basis.

The site I worked for had a target for me of 2 million page views per month. That’s one writer, expected to generate all that traffic.

So let’s say I comissioned you to get that sort of audience, but I didn’t really give you any advice about how to do it. What’s your plan?

The answer you give won’t matter much. You’ll learn what gets clicks, but you’ll also learn that you’re expected to write around 8 stories a day. That’s one an hour with no breaks.

You could not research and write a fact-checked story in an hour if you life depended on it. All you can really do is regurgitate press releases, report news broken on other sites and perhaps swallow up some social media posts. Popular are “10 funny things Twitter said about Boris Johnson’s latest gaffe” and, in this case, a single-source report about a shop.

A proper journalist, like the ones that get their stuff printed on to dead trees, would never consider this acceptable. A good online journlist wouldn’t either. And you might be good, but you’ve also got one hour to write a story and you’ll probably be on something totally different next. Perhaps writing about water on the moon, or something else.

I remember when I was doing this job we used to cover things breaking. Think “Breaking: Vodafone down in the UK, users FURIOUS”. The source for this would be Down Detector’s Twitter account. The news desk would see these, and appear demanding a story (usually there’d be an annoyed Google Chat message first).

I was once told if I couldn’t get a story like that up in 30 seconds, there was no point bothering. You can imagine me muttering to myself “there isn’t any point bothering”.

But here’s why this tactic works. Firstly, a “breaker” doesn’t need any content. It’s a headline with some boilerplate text underneath it. The headline does the work, and using the word “breaking” in the headline bypasses the usual story upload process – it goes live instantly.

Speed is important, because sites which need high volumes of traffic also need Google and its pissy little robot to see their story first, and put it in the news box. The news box is the holy grail of traffic for news sites. Below is a picture of the news box.

So when an online journalist sees a story about Woolworths coming back I promise their first thought isn’t “I wonder if this is true” it’s more likely to be “people will be searching this, I can get some traffic”.

And that’s what happens. For the same reason that a site or service going down will see a lot of people searching the term “is Vodafone down”, people will also search Twitter trends. And of course, you story will go on Twitter and may (probably not though) get some extra traffic.

And that’s why today happened, but more importantly it’s a good illustration of how fucked news is.

Lead image, Katherine H on Flikr. Inline image, Google.