Recent Time and Newsweek covers constitute last gasps in the dying newsweekly
business. Of greater concern, however, is that while these magazines are already
in media’s rearview mirror, their turn toward tabloid-style sensationalism
reflects what is happening all along the information highway.
You saw or heard about the covers that caused the fuss: Time with a 26-year-old
mother breast feeding her unusually mature 3-year-old son; Newsweek with a rainbow
halo over Barack Obama’s head and the line, “America’s first
gay president.” Selling magazines and tabloid newspapers with shock and
schlock isn’t new, but the fact that the techniques have gone viral – to
use new media’s favorite term – is troubling.
|One day’s front-page
headlines on AOL: “Grandma Goes to Walmart,
Vanishes” and “I Ate to Scare Classmates Away.” That same
day CNN.com’s top items were flesh-eating bugs and “Horse bolts into
ocean, swims 2 miles.” On the conservative Drudge Report: “Rocks
Found at Beach Ignite in Woman’s Pocket.”
This is now the standard stuff of top Internet sites as well as cable-TV, broadcast
TV morning shows and, of course, local TV newscasts. Even many of the most reputable
news organizations, such as the Los Angeles Times, play it straight on their
printed front pages but turn frisky on the Web. The flesh-eating bugs and burning
rocks – plus several celebrity items – were front-page news on the
One major reason for this condition involves the difference between serving a
stable, subscription-based audience versus non-paid, transient customers. News
organizations that charge for content, especially via ongoing subscriptions,
face less pressure to woo readers with the most eye-opening developments of the
moment. Free media, and publications largely reliant on single-copy sales, are
in a constant struggle for attention.
Time and Newsweek are goosing up covers in a desperate effort to stimulate newsstand
sales and media buzz. The most popular Websites, almost all offering content
for free, play the grabber game minute-to-minute, knowing that readers are just
a click away from disappearing. As long as the “free model” persists
in new media, the trend toward sensationalism will continue.
Another factor is the 24/7 pace of modern communication. “Breaking News” is
the mantra of cable coverage – even if much of it is hardly newsworthy
and is barely breaking. A truck in flames on a Midwest Interstate might qualify
as breaking news on national cable – especially if there’s video – but
would never appear in a summary of the day’s most important developments.
Then, too, there is the popularity of “reality” and celebrity-driven
programming across the TV spectrum. These shows came along at just the right
time to synergize with other media. Contestants perform at night and show up
the next morning on competing networks to talk about it. Not since Charles Van
Doren captivated the nation on the NBC quiz program “Twenty One” has
media paid so much attention to TV-created competition – and it should
be remembered that Van Doren’s appeal was his intellect and not, to cite
a current NBC show, how much weight he could lose from one week to the next.
The fact that “Twenty One” was rigged only made for better tabloid
Finally, and sadly, increased competition among media often brings out the worst
in news judgment. Consumers are blessed to have so many digital options from
which to choose, and cursed that so many of them vie for attention by seeking
the lowest content denominator.
While industry observers tend to view the market as divided between “paid” and “free,” the
distinction is also increasingly between “serious” and “superficial.” There
are notable exceptions, but that’s the trend.
Much of what we get as news these days isn’t worth the pixels it’s
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.
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