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 Times' site.
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 headlines.
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 displayed with.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
©2012 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by: Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley. Email [email protected], (800) 696-7561.