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Today's TMI Media Culture: Baiting Clicks At Women's Expense

Culture

In 1994, at the age of nine, I received my first “serious” diary as a gift from my grandmother. Though I haven’t seen it in ages, I remember the look and feel of it quite well. It had a thick, puffy pink cover, canoodling teddy bears on the front, and an actual lock and key to keep my secrets safe and to myself. Admittedly, the contents were not compelling for anyone beyond grade school, as I primarily divulged current crushes, playground drama, and lunch line gossip.


That diary, and the subsequent journals that followed, played a key role in helping me decide what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. And I was focused on achieving my goal, too. After serving as a reporter, then editor, for my high school newspaper, went on to study journalism in college. As a student, I threw myself into classes, reported for the newspaper, served as editor of our collegiate magazine, completed three media internships, and wrote professionally for local, national, and even international publications while completing my degree. After graduating in 2008, I briefly worked as a newspaper reporter, and then shifted into a freelance position, where I’ve remained ever since.

The TMI Media Industry

I’ve now been writing professionally for over 10 years, which may not seem like very long to some of you. But anyone in the media industry will tell you the same thing about last decade: it has seen huge, sweeping changes. I’ve watched countless publications – many I’ve written for – shutter their print editions and move online. I’ve seen outlets flounder (and budgets plummet) as Google changes its algorithms on a whim. And, as someone who covers primarily women’s lifestyle content, I’ve seen a salient shift in the type of content that’s pushed.

Even established media outlets have moved from news and thought pieces to listicles with suggestive titles and image-heavy regurgitations of the same pop culture fodder. Countless new sites appear and disappear attempting to garner a massive audiences--fast; often with images of scantily-clad women, promises to help you "stalk your boyfriend" and the opportunity to read up on "sex positions you will never believe."

CLICKBAIT

(on the Internet) content, especially that of a sensational or provocative nature, whose main purpose is to attract attention and draw visitors to a particular web page.

Add to that all the headlines promising free goodies, from downloads to products, which quickly hijack your screen, magically opening multiple windows replete with flashing pages and invasive pop ups.

“In the advertising world it’s called ‘bait and switch,’ and it’s illegal. Bait-and-switch happens when a store advertises a particular item for sale, but when you try to make a purchase you’re told the item is no longer available, but there is a similar item you can buy, for, of course, more money," writes Larry Burriss of the Murfreesboro Post. "In the Internet world this kind of thing is called ‘clickbait,’ and it happens when a news or other headline tell you one thing, but then never delivers on the promise. It’s not really a scam, because no one is really hurt.”

Perhaps not hurt, but what is the effect of too much clickbait?

I like to say that we live in a “TMI” and “tl;dr” climate of journalism. If a story’s not laden with images and gifs, if it doesn’t feel sexy or raw or tug at your insides, and if it doesn’t teach you something quickly, then good luck with your bounce rate stats. And if the headline isn’t compelling enough to make a reader want to click outside of their social network portal, then good luck getting eyes on your content in the first place.

Media outlets, of course, must cater to what readers want. This results in clickbait – “you’ll never guess what happened next!” – headlines, as well as an increase in stories that reach unprecedented levels of personal divulgence. I’ve seen editors consistently request pitches about deeply private experiences ranging from sexual fetishes to embarrassing feminine hygiene moments to heartbreaking divorce and breakups. I’ve also seen a huge increase in calls for experimental stories that push societal norms and try to create shock value.

It could be a bias because it’s the world I live in, but I’ve found that this type of “TMI” and “shock value” writing is most often found in women’s media. And to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On one hand, I think the media world is giving readers exactly what they want more of, otherwise those stories wouldn’t do so well. I also think this “let’s get real and raw” approach can be healthy and empowering, as it shines a light onto parts of female-hood that have otherwise been dark. Stories about sex gone wrong, mental health issues, relationship failures, and more, are chipping away at the unachievable goal of perfect femininity that was been built up in years prior. However, many online publishers are simply trying to fight a losing game.

"Newspapers are losing readers and revenue. Some are shutting down all over North America," writes Jeffrey Dvorkin for PBS. "In the rush to return to the once-rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and more labor-intensive) content....This increased competition from media organizations like Buzzfeed, Vice Media and Vox have put renewed pressure on legacy media. Broadcasters especially try to entice their audiences through click-bait."

Digital Exploitation

At the same time, though, I think we’re walking a fine line between empowering female writers and their audiences, and exploitation for a paycheck. As a writer, I’ve personally vowed to not write about anything I’m uncomfortable sharing, and I like to think that other writers have done the same for themselves. If a woman feels 100% OK writing about her forgotten tampon, and if she has an audience who wants to read about it, so be it.

Regardless it cannot be denied that women are one of the main targets when it comes to clickbait. Many female writers report that there is a new uncomfortable reality in which they are being forced to write about topics that make them uncomfortable or face a much smaller list of digital publications they can write for.

One such writer reports that for a full year while employed at a "woman-focused website," she was often told by the managing editor to cover topics of a sexual nature, especially those that put women into a negative light.

"Basically the option was to write the story or get fired," said one editor. "It was weird because the staff was almost all women and I can't imagine they didn't also feel uncomfortable writing some humiliating topics like how to look hot in order to keep the man in your life, but no one said anything. The fact that the top editors were men added a weird dynamic."

Thankfully there has been some pushback towards clickbait, as social sites like Facebook have implemented algorithms that help weed out content-poor pieces that rely on splashy headlines for a usually quickly abandoned click. The system can identify clickbait headlines by utilizing a similar process that classifies spam emails. Facebook then determines those websites with misleading headlines, and ranks them lower in the social network's News Feed.

"What we hope is this will create incentives for publishers to post less clickbait," Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for News Feed, told Reuters last year. "We tried to be very concrete about what we defined as clickbait."

From an overarching media perspective, however, I think it’s important to find a balance in the type of content we create for women. Sure, there’s no denying that readers indulge in “TMI” stories (think: our obsession with reality TV) and that such content can do some good, but readers want – and need – to read other types of content, too.

We need content that empowers women in the business sphere, content that discusses mental and physical health from an unbiased, matter-of-fact POV instead of an experimental one. And alongside stories that help normalize failure (a good thing), we still need aspirational stories that showcase kickass females dominating their worlds.

I really do think we’re moving there, albeit slowly, and I’m already noticing a shift. I’ve seen an uptick in new media outlets that aim to create the kind of content discussed above, and I’ve also seen existing media outlets trying to find a better balance in the type of stories they’re publishing. Personally, I’ve vowed to participate more actively – both as a writer and reader – in outlets that are creating the type of media I want to see more of. I would encourage anyone reading this to do the same, and to remember that in the online world, we “vote” with our clicks.

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Career

Momtors: The New Wave of Mentors Helping New Moms Transition Back Into Careers

New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.


Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.

Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:

"I didn't think you'd come back."

"You must feel so guilty."

"You missed a lot while you were out."

To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.

There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.

Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.

Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.

It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.

Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship

How to be a good Momtor?

Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.

Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.

Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.

Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.