Frequently my publisher sends all of us an email with the latest column she has found about why, in the writer's opinion, newspapers are "dying." I would like to think the message she is trying to send to us is "These are the things we should avoid doing" as opposed to "your career is doomed." Anyway, the latest one she sent actually makes a lot of sense. The author claimed that it is actually the readers that are killing newspapers, not just because they don't want to pay for news, but because they have bad taste in articles. As much as readers say they want to read real news and not "trash," they are lying, as evidenced by the fact that their complaints are most often in the form of comments under articles with titles like "Who is the father of Snooki's child?" Don't tell me you only clicked on that headline to comment on the story without reading it, SeriousGuy22. Also, don't forget that the social reader apps on Facebook let everyone know you read "How to seduce that hot co-worker" this afternoon.
See, in the good old days before the Internet, journalists had no idea how many people read their stories. Sure, they knew how many people bought the paper, but they didn't know if those people were reading the whole thing cover to cover, only looking at the comics, or only reading the headlines. If a reporter was feeling wildly optimistic (or more likely, very drunk) they could tell themselves that everyone in town was reading all 800 words of their investigative piece about water rates. With the advent of Internet page view statistics, however, they have been disabused of this totally foolish notion. Reality TV stars, cats on YouTube and sex offenders are in. Things that actually matter are out.
As I write this, the stories on Yahoo!'s "most popular" list are these:
New look for 'Dragon Tattoo' star
Actress blasts 'puffy' face critics
FBI takes bin Laden off 'Most Wanted'
Former coach bashes Michael Jordan
Soccer player's inappropriate photo
So what would you do, if you worked at a company in danger of bankruptcy and you knew you could go in the next round of layoffs if you didn't get enough people reading your stories? Would you continue to write stories that attempted to explain important 800-page Senate bills and took hours of research and getting stonewalled by secretaries to write? Or would you start spending ten minutes rewriting others' stories on hot topics and posting them under tantalizing headlines?
Don't be fooled by the headlines. If you're curious about the "horrifying secret" or "crazy new trend" clicking on the article will reveal, I'll save you the time: If it was really that crazy or horrifying they would have actually put it in the headline (for example "Woman found out she was married to her long lost brother"). The last time I clicked on a headline like that, I found out that the horrifying secret the author found out about Marilyn Monroe is that she was naturally thin. No joke.
Also, if the headline asks a question, the answer is always either "no" or "we have no idea". Why write an article titled "Obama hasn't said anything about Romney's religion" when you could call it "Does Obama really believe Romney belongs to cult?" It's just an opportunity to throw in buzz words. One of my editors during my internship at the Daily News a couple of years back told me that Sarah Palin was consistently one of the most searched-for terms on the Internet that summer, so "If Sarah Palin sneezes, you'll be writing a story about it." I could do it, too: "Is Sarah Palin dying of a horrifying secret disease?"
According to Google News, the top news topics as I write this are Mitt Romney and Axl Rose. Combine this fact with the knowledge of words that make people click on stories any time without fail, and you will know to expect headlines like "Did Mitt Romney and Axl Rose have a shocking gay love affair?" in the coming weeks. Be honest: If you saw that headline come up on the MSN homepage, would you click on it? Yeah, I thought so.