Watch Journalism In 2018: What’s Wrong, How To Improve . . . And Why The Biggest Problem Is YOU
by Ian Skellern
The idea for this article first came to me many weeks ago, and this is the type of story (or even rant) that I usually find easy to write. So a week ago, when I thought I knew what I wanted to say, I enthusiastically sat down and wrote a long article about what I felt was wrong in watch journalism and what I thought might be done to fix it.
The words just flowed as they do when I care about something, and it felt great to get the idea down.
Then, the next morning, while proofreading before sending to our editor-in-chief, I realized that in writing my thoughts down, my thinking had changed – as it sometimes does. My thinking had changed so much that I deleted everything, begged for an extension, and started again.
And I did that every day for the last week.
Then yesterday I thought, whatever I write today I will publish tomorrow. No matter what.
This morning I deleted that too. It was too complicated. And this should be easy.
So here goes.
Two simple problems, two simple solutions
There are two main problems in watch journalism as I see things today – and this is from the viewpoint of a watch enthusiast, watch collector, (former) watch brand social media manager, watch publisher, watch photographer, and watch journalist:
1. Low average quality of horological articles written, often as a result of the perverse financial incentives away from quality journalism toward click-bait sensationalism and sycophantic brand-centric drivel.
2. Often obscure incentives – especially, but not always, financial – behind the articles we read. Advertising, advertorials, native advertising, direct sales, and exotic trips for journalists are all going toward one aim: to entice you to buy watches.
And if that worries you, it should: my headline wasn’t click bait; “. . . And Why The Biggest Problem Is YOU” refers to the fact that the reason there are so many murky financial influences behind nearly everything we read online (not that print magazines are much different) is that you (and I) do not pay anything toward them.
The reader might feel like a customer, but customers pay. And the only ones generally paying toward watch content are watch brands.
Watch brands are the clients, not readers, and that’s something that is far too often overlooked.
Most of the great watch content you read, sometimes on a daily basis, is paid for by the brands, either directly or (not very) indirectly. We can complain about things, but we should not be surprised.
Follow the money
One problem with watch journalism (or perhaps I should refer to it as watch-related content), as much of what we think is independent editorial is likely to be brand-sponsored advertorial, is that we have watch brand money paying for advertising, advertorials, and exotic events for journalists.
AND, as if that’s not enough, a significant percentage of watch journalists — myself included — really does love watches. We don’t need financial inducements to wax lyrical about whatever makes our heart beat faster; the money just makes possible what we would do (and likely did) for free anyway.
And now you have decently-sized watch media outlets like Hodinkee and Revolution selling new watches. How might that influence what journalists write about and what they say?
The big problem is that we have no idea what influences publishers and journalists, and the influences are anyway so varied and intertwined that they are likely to be nearly impossible to unravel (and that’s just me).
I’m not against all of these different income and inducement streams, just that they should be more transparent to the readers.
Listicles, we all love listicles
It’s also worth noting that if we had titled this article “5 Reasons Why The Biggest Problem In Watch Journalism Is YOU,” then a great many more of you would have clicked to read this article.
For most, if not all digital publications, the majority of income rises or falls at least indirectly with the size (and quality) of our audiences. In the short term it would be a no-brainer to use more listicles to increase visitor traffic, but clicking on a listicle is like sucking a piece of candy: a short-term burst of pleasure, but no long-term satiation.
A listicle-type headline generally tells me (as a reader) two things: there is likely to be very little actual information and there will be very little noteworthy about what’s on the list, apart from the fact that it is on the list.
If I had used a listicle headline, this article is likely to have attracted many more readers, but they are also likely to be the type of reader who will have a quick glance before clicking off elsewhere. By using a more standard headline, I’m hoping to indicate that this content is of a more serious nature, and as such is likely to appeal to the contemplative and informed reader (and if you have got this far, it likely worked).
The business models of the majority of watch blogs and platforms (excluding Quill & Pad) derive more income for more clicks, no matter how long the viewer stays on the page. So the incentive is to create easy, lightweight content that the reader will flit in and out of.
I’d like to see blogs and brands paying more attention to visitor engagement, i.e., how long readers stay on the page and how often they interact with the page (click links, open images, comment, etc.).
Three steps to horological Nirvana!
1. A Charter of Best Practices for watch publications and journalists, clearly setting out for all and sundry what to expect like clearly labeled native advertising and advertorials and transparent notices of incentives/inducements. Watch publications and blogs would display a logo signifying that they follow the code of best practices and readers could call out any transgressions.
There might even be a star rating at the top of each article where reader can rate the article out of five.
More importantly, watch brands should declare that they adhere to the same Charter of Best Practices so they have something to gain by the enhanced reputation (and something to lose).
2. An association of watch journalists with its own Charter of Best Practices that would publish guidelines for journalists, photographers, brands, and events.
If reviewing a watch, state upfront if personally handled or not; bring a different aspect to the story than simply “here’s a new watch.” News has little value, opinion does: tell us what you think of a watch or subject, don’t just repeat what the press release says.
3. A bursary or scholarship to encourage excellence in watch journalism. The vast amount of money financing all watch publications come from watch brands. And while the brands would love to dictate every word to praise themselves, they know that a third person’s viewpoint, especially a third person with deep knowledge of the subject and a talent for prose, is much more effective in influencing a reader than anything they can write themselves.
So brands and retailers might create a fund that each year hands out annual bursaries or scholarships that commissions selected journalists to write in-depth stories on whatever takes their fancy (now that’s a committee to be on!).
What is quality content?
People do not pay for news; they pay for opinion. Telling us that a new watch has launched isn’t journalism, it’s blatant brand advertising (and, yes, I’m as guilty as anyone).
Quality content educates us with a compelling story that readers want to share. Social media is not a repository of quality content, it’s a candy store, and I’d like to entice more people to eat in the fine-dining restaurant.
And as well as any, I’m fully aware that doing anything in life is a comprise, including writing and publishing.
I should state up front that the only financial influence that I’m subject to in the context of this article are the 12 brands that support Quill & Pad on a relatively long-term basis. Quill & Pad does not generate pay-per-views as most online publications do, which is based on the number of pages you click; we focus on engagement. Our animated banner adverts rotate in a slideshow, so we are incentivized to create content that will entice the reader to linger on each page and look at a subject in depth rather than generate a sheer number of clicks.
So please join me in thanking Armin Strom, Fabergé, Greubel Forsey, Grayson Tighe, Hermès, Jaquet Droz, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Richard Mille, Romain Gauthier, Tutima, Ulysse Nardin and Urwerk, as it is only thanks to their support that I have the luxury to write my opinion on this for your consideration. These brands are supporting us at Quill & Pad to write about both themselves and other brands, as we wish, because you don’t.
Are you comfortable with that?
What changes would you like to see?
Update: Within a couple of hours of publishing this article, the image below shows the most recent posts from largish blogs on Watchville. Are readers simply consuming whatever is dished up or are the blogs just catering to demand? Only you can answer that one.