Clickbait culture: why rugby league readers, not just writers, are to blame

A few months ago I produced what I believed to be one of my best-ever pieces of journalism.

It was a piece on the pay cuts that were being implemented across Super League. It was a club-by-club guide on the different cuts all 12 clubs were implementing, an explanation of the different systems clubs were using, details about reviews and much more.

It took an incredible amount of time to produce. I had to exhaust my entire contact book to get details from all 12 clubs and make a ridiculous number of phone calls to verify all the information.

I knew for a fact it was a piece that would p**s a lot of people off, too. The information showed some clubs to be worse than others, it was confidential information clubs simply did not want out in the public domain. In an industry where you’re only as good as your contacts, I knew there would be repercussions.

But I did it anyway because, well, it’s my job. It’s my responsibility, my duty as a journalist to report on news in the interest of the public.

The week after, one Super League CEO refused to speak to me as he didn’t want to be associated with me in fear he would appear to be the leak. He still hasn’t done a piece with me since. Another club official told League Express editor Martyn Sadler something similar.

It was a lot of hassle but ultimately, would come with a lot of reward, right?


Upon publishing that piece on TotalRL, I was expecting our server to crash (readers will know that’s common for us on a Sunday night as we break big stories).

What happened was anything but. It did slightly better than average for an exclusive story posted on the website, but only just. The server never wobbled.

For context, stories that have out-performed it this year include Halifax signing Tommy Lee, Sosaia Feki getting injured and numerous editions of ‘What’s Inside League Express’, which teases what’s in the paper that week.

It’s one very small example that begins to explain a big problem in the media right now.

Clickbait culture.

Recently I was alerted to a thread on the TotalRL forum which was critical of the rugby league media. As a collective, we were accused of ‘not rocking the boat’. My name was brought up specifically.

It’s a criticism I dispute, but the problem is the readers don’t encourage the journalists to rock the boat because when they do, they don’t engage with it.

Take a look at our site’s stats and you quickly establish coverage of the ‘major’ issues does not perform.

Of the 25 most viewed articles on our website this year, 18 are transfer stories. The others relate to Super League fixtures, the status of Championship and League 1, the competition’s return and one on Ben Thaler’s suspension earlier in the year.

Leaked letters from the RFL, club owners and the GMB? Nowhere to be seen. Salary cap debates? Not even close. Reserve grade binned? Nobody seems to care.

They say sex sells but in rugby league, transfers sell.

As the media moves more and more online, journalists are judged on their hits. The reality right now is I could make one phone call to an agent, type it up in ten minutes and I guarantee it would out-perform a story perceived to be ‘proper journalism’.

Feature interviews get no traction at all. In fact, my most viewed interview on TotalRL is one with the man who rings the Huddersfield cowbell. I kid you not.

I get several private messages from rugby league supporters on Twitter every day and 95% are asking about transfer stories. Since doing the piece on pay cuts this Sunday, an issue that could stop Super League from returning, one person has asked about it.

Lazy journalism is a criticism often thrown at the media but unfortunately, it’s dictated by the readers. You’re better ripping off someone else’s story than going out and getting your own. When that becomes a habit of too many, you have less focus on getting information and more on regurgitating what’s already out there.

In a way, a contradictory one you could say, it does reinforce my opinion a big problem in this sport is that we spend too much time talking about off-field crap than what happens on the pitch – which is ultimately the sport’s biggest strength.

At the same time, matters off the pitch have to be covered to make sure those in charge are accountable for their actions. Do, as a collective, the rugby league media do that enough? It’s an interesting debate and many would say they do not. They might have a point.

I’m fortunate that website clicks aren’t the be-all and end-all; if they were I certainly wouldn’t be wasting my time writing this piece. As a result, I’ll continue to do what I do and chase stories in whatever shape they come.

But for other journalists, the effort doesn’t justify the reward. It’s a trend that’s died down a bit in rugby league circles this year but I can understand why other websites invest their time turning around a story broken elsewhere and splashing it on every Facebook page possible rather than getting their own stories because it takes less effort and brings more reward. But it doesn’t benefit anyone, the writer themselves more than anyone, in the long run.

The demand for clicks is partly at fault but the lack of engagement from readers is too. I’m not saying the media are perfect – we aren’t, sometimes, enough questions aren’t asked by all of us.

In a way, I shouldn’t complain. Of all the stories to obtain, transfer stories are the easiest. In reality, it should make my life a lot easier. I have a colleague who pokes fun at me for my ‘obsession’ with chasing transfer stories. But in reality, it’s giving the people what they want.

Journalists shouldn’t be driven purely by hits. There’s an element of personal pride attached to breaking a story too. Unfortunately, some are forced into that mentality. Hopefully, if fans start doing their part, journalists will do theirs too.