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6/2/2008
10:15 PM
David Berlind
David Berlind
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Sensationalism: The Established Media's Only Answer To The Long Tail?

In response to my last post (the one on why both the NY Times and Mashable.com were off-base about the connection between blogging and heart failure), several readers wrote to offer an opinion about the direction that the NY Times' coverage is taking. Have you noticed the dramatic background music being played on your favorite local or national news program? The river of graphic headlin

In response to my last post (the one on why both the NY Times and Mashable.com were off-base about the connection between blogging and heart failure), several readers wrote to offer an opinion about the direction that the NY Times' coverage is taking. Have you noticed the dramatic background music being played on your favorite local or national news program? The river of graphic headlines on most big-league news sites? Some shortcuts in reporting being taken that certain news outlets would never have taken before? You can thank the Internet's.......so-called long tail for the pickle that the established media is in, and having a hard time finding its way out of.

To be fair, every media outlet and every journalist, for that matter, has their great days and then their off days: days when they look back at the what went out that day and say, "We (or I) could have done better." I can also point to plenty of impressive and current coverage from the Times and Mashable.com. But when technology writers venture out of their comfort zone to discuss matters of medicine without even trying to report on the facts and a venerable brand like the Times lets it happen, you know the litmus test for integrity is changing. Thank the long tail.

Regarding the author and section (within the Times) of the NY Times story that I referred to, InformationWeek reader JohnJ wrote:

Matt Richtel is a technology writer, and he wrote this article in the paper's Technology section. He's not qualified to write medical articles, and should stick to subjects he knows about.

Reader NJ Mike wrote:

Just another example that the New York Times no longer deserves the respect or status that it once did. Just because it is not a tabloid and that it is published in New York doesn't mean it is a quality newspaper. The "paper of record" is anything but that title, which it hasn't been deserving of for quite a number of years.

An wrote:

As for The Times, well, most mainstream media is unreliable and full of shoddy reporters who don't know how to write. It's a dated system that no one wants to be a part of anymore, so they pick up whatever trash they can find on the street to write for them.

First, thanks to the small group of people who responded so far. Second, the call-outs above are only three comments and are in no way projectable. But each of them contains some shred of truth that, to me, as both an employee and student of the media business, is more demonstrative of the established media's struggle than not.

The second word in "media business" is business. My father, also in the media business, used to tell me how a media property (a magazine, a newspaper, radio station, etc.) is like a three-legged stool. One leg is your audience. The other leg is your advertising. The third leg is your content and editorial. If you weaken or pull out any one of the legs, the stool falls over.

This isn't true of all media properties, as some have a slightly different model (eg: Consumer Reports has no advertising). But thanks to the blogosphere and YouTube (where everyone gets a printing press or a TV station for free), the long tail is really giving the established media a thrashing.

Taken as a whole, the blogosphere and YouTube are basically media properties the likes of which older media properties never had to contend with before. If, in that long tail of the blogopshere, you find five sources of information that you really like, you are more likely to shift your content consumption time to those five sources rather than open up additional consumption time to accommodate the new content. That means shifting away from whatever you're regularly consuming today. That shift -- terrifying to most media executives -- is under way. For the most part, every minute you spend with YouTube or with some authoritative blogger's blog is one less minute you're going to spend with a previously relied-upon source of information.

This battle for eyeball and eardrum seconds forces the existing media to resort to things it might not have done 10 or 15 years ago in order to not just keep readers, but to grow their audiences as well. Growth? Yes. The last time I checked, the idea was to grow a business, not maintain it. But before the established media can return to growth, many outlets have to stop the bleeding.

Whether its CNN, The New York Times, or Mashable.com, the headlines, the presentation, the background music (where offered) are clearly more sensationalized. They're candy machines and, unfortunately, we live in a world where candy is preferred over a decent meal.

Some media properties have resisted this temptation better than others. But it's a very sad statement about media consumption as well (yes, you and me) since it speaks to what audiences are demanding (or what media execs think is working). Call it what you want (I've heard "Foxification"). It's a seduction to the dark side that, in reality, is no match for the long tail.

The proof is around us every day.

For example, on CNN.com, I just watched media veteran Larry King interview a man who claims to have shot video of an alien. The headline reads Space alien seen on video, man claims. I clicked only to find that there is no video of an alien. It's more like 10 minutes of agony for Larry King who, somewhere midstream through the segment, realizes he must summon all the experience he has to turn a nothing story into something worthwhile.

The absurdity is just as much my fault (for clicking) as it is the editor's (the one who decided to do this story) for chasing after my click.

Is this what the established media has come to?

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