Newsrooms be warned: There’s an ulterior motive behind those ‘buzzworthy’ lists

Newsrooms be warned: There’s an ulterior motive behind those ‘buzzworthy’ lists

Sometimes when two things just don’t seem to fit together properly, they get stuck in my brain. That’s what sent me down a rabbit hole and led to this recommendation for my colleagues: Let’s ban publication of any unsolicited rankings or lists.

  • Best foods to eat before bed
  • Ten best cities for single people
  • Do you eat at one of the 5 greasiest fast food joints?

…that kind of junk.

Several of those pitches land in newsroom inboxes every day, but they’re a public relations trend that serves the author’s clients far more than it serves our news audience.

What does a website about gambling in Pennsylvania have to gain by crunching public data about the smartest states? Nothing, but they know we’ll be tempted to run a story about how “wicked smaht” everyone in Massachusetts is and then we’d need to include a link attributing the information to their work. That link is what they really want. Links from our domains will boost their reputation in the eyes of search engine algorithms.

Why is a lawn care business ranking ice skating offerings in major cities? It’s a subject in which they have no expertise, but they’ll pay people to crunch some numbers or maybe even fund a small survey to create something they think we’ll use, thereby manufacturing new backlinks to their shady businesses.

Another real-life example: A restaurant menu website that I’ve never heard of crunching Google Trends data on the most popular fast-food restaurants in Massachusetts. If they were really such a comprehensive hot-spot for digital menus, wouldn’t they have data of their own to analyze? Anyway, it’s a stretch to say search data has any reflection on the popularity of a physical restaurant and they’re just trying to use data that’s equally available to our newsrooms to leech from our digital reputations.

A search of recent examples in my inbox revealed fourteen recent pitches from a UK-based PR Link Building Agency that says it brings together data scientists, PR specialists, story-tellers and SEO specialists to build “the world’s most powerful backlinks” for more than 40 clients around the world. That company’s website boasts placements on international news sites and aggregators. It also boasts that one of its biggest hits, netting dozens of backlinks, was created in just three hours and another was built by a team member with zero experience.

My inbox also contained four list offerings from a strategic public relations company whose stated goal is to “develop newsworthy content” that promotes a brand “to earn authentic media coverage on top-tier publications.” That company’s shady website (what reputable digital communications company hasn’t adopted HTTPS yet?) offers no information about their ownership, team or headquarters.

I think it’s in the best interest of our reputations and audiences to send all of these lists to the junk folder. If a reporter or producer wants to cull through public data for stories on their own, and report it in proper context, there’s plenty of access to do that.