By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Counting on Anna Nicole

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times writes that the death of Anna Nicole Smith may be among the first celebrity stories to land on the front pages of quality newspapers in large measure because of Internet traffic. Rutten explains:

Throughout the afternoon Thursday, editors across the country watched the number of “hits” recorded for online items about Smith’s death. These days, it’s the rare newspaper whose meeting to discuss the content of the next day’s edition doesn’t include a recitation of the most popular stories on the paper’s website. It’s a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages.

What makes this of more than passing interest is that serious American journalism is in the process of transforming itself into a new, hybrid news medium that combines traditional print and broadcast with a more purposefully articulated online presence. One of the latter’s most seductive attributes is its ability to gauge readers’ appetites for a particular story on a minute-to-minute basis. What you get is something like the familiar television ratings — though constantly updated, if you choose to treat them that way.

As someone who believes in the more interactive, “news as a conversation” model espoused by Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen and others, I’m troubled by Rutten’s observation. This isn’t good, is it? And I say that as someone who believes Smith’s death probably deserved to be on page one — just not as a result of Web numbers.

Then again, this isn’t the inevitable consequence of greater interactivity — it’s less than that. As Rutten notes, this is a matter of editors emulating their television counterparts and following the ratings. And let’s not forget, though TV executives may know how to win any given night by going downscale, news audiences overall have been shrinking for more than 20 years. What feels good right now isn’t necessarily what succeeds in the long run.

Newspaper editors — the good ones, anyway — have traditionally aspired to something better. Unfortunately, being able to measure reader interest is going to make it harder to resist the urge to pander. (Thanks to Media Nation reader R.P. for alerting me to Rutten’s column.)

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  1. Anonymous

    So what’s the answer? TV News operations get their numbers daily. Anna Nicole doubled the Cable TV numbers. Talking about the Scooter Libby trieal doesn’t rate. That sort of immediacy in ratings, even more immediate with internet hit calculations is bound to change the dynamic.

  2. Anonymous

    Dan, it is not pandering to publish front page stories that interest readers. It is called newspapering. The idea that web traffic affected this decision is as silly as it is self-evident. No editor worth a dam would have left that story off P 1 even if this were still the carrier pigeon age, and no editor worth a dam would not have known that stories like that are hot on-line. a good story is a goos story. what is in fact pandering, frankly, are stories like this (link below) in the globe, under a headline memorable for reading as if it was written by someone with a clothespin on his nose:Anna Nicole’s rise and fall has captured our attention think? … it’s a story designed to pander to people who think they are too good for the story.

  3. Howard Owens

    It isn’t necessarily the subject matter. It’s what you do with it. It’s how you handle it.There’s nothing wrong with understanding what interests people and then doing a quality job in covering it.

  4. mike_b1

    At the risk of piling on, I agree in general with the other responders.I personally have no interest in the Anna Nicole story. But clearly many people do.So what’s worse: writing about the death of a B-list celeb, or publishing page after breathless page about a Congressional resolution (!) on Iraq that has no teeth and would be utterly worthless except for the fact that people are dying while Congress lists.

  5. Anonymous

    By giving the story such prominence aren’t the media reinforcing, or even elevating its importance in the mind of news consumers? At some point, isn’t it incumbent on the adults to help direct attention, rather than just pander to common taste? I EXPECT the Globe to play the story differently than the Herald, that’s why I read the Globe rather than the Herald. Elitist? Maybe, but it’s also a matter of knowing your audience.Mike-b1, it seems to me that you have answered your own question, even if not in the manner you intended.

  6. mike_b1

    Anon, to clarify, mine was a rhetorical question. People want to read about Anna Nicole Smith. So let ’em, and stop crying about how the masses aren’t interested in hard news. The mainstream media tsk tsk the Beltway insiders for being out of touch with the masses, yet the irony is so totally lost on those same media.

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