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The Huffington Post discovers the secret

The key to success in journalism, it appears, is a haircut.

Eric Alterman, in an article in The New Yorker on America’s faltering newspapers, quotes Jonah Peretti of the Huffington Post on the “mullet strategy” that has achieved the Web site’s success: “(‘Business up front, party in the back’ is how his trend-spotting site BuzzFeed glosses it.) ‘User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks,’ Peretti says. The mullet strategy invites users to ‘argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.’”

Amazing that it could be so simple. Amazing, too, that this strategy could be presented as something novel.

After all, there is an analogous mullet strategy in a magazine like Vanity Fair, which spotlights a few sober-minded articles in each issue to balance the relentless celebrity gossip and high-gloss consumer advertising (a kind of wealth pornography) to be found inside. For that matter, The New Yorker achieves the same balance between the worthy and the frivolous. Don’t you, like me, flip through the magazine to look at the cartoons before settling down to the articles?

The other component, getting content for nothing, is also less than blindingly original. Forty years ago, a tyro at The Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., I edited the country correspondence each week during the summers: social notes sent in from the outlying hamlets by sweet older ladies who received in return nothing more than copy paper, envelopes and stamps. That, and their names, along with the names of relatives and neighbors, printed in the paper. Readers seeing their names in print has always been one of the underpinnings of the small-town newspaper.

It is probably superfluous to repeat Dr. Johnson’s remark, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” since so few appear to heed it.

What the Internet brings to these venerable devices is increased inclusiveness and immediacy.

Any twit with an Internet connection can now become a published writer, and I believe that we are not far from the day when bloggers will discover the same problem with which poets have struggled for decades: more people writing the stuff than reading it.

And we can read it at any time of day or night. None of this laborious editing, formatting, typesetting, printing, packaging, loading onto trucks and distributing that eats up hours and hours before a print product, growing stale faster than a Krispy Kreme doughnut in the open air, can be put in your hands. And yet, what do you get when you log on? Last week I printed out the list of top stories from CNN and read the list off to my copy editing class at Loyola. The stories themselves were as routine and dull as the wire service stories in the newspaper, and the headlines were even less inviting. Of more than a dozen stories, only a couple stirred even a flicker of interest among the class.

So I appear to have ruled out dull “official” news and the turgid and ill-thought-out carryings-on of the blogosphere as sufficient to overthrow the long dominance of newspapers. But I think I know what has really worked.

Pictures.

The newspaper industry has spent untold sums for the past 30 years and more to develop the technology of printing high-quality color photography on newsprint. As an ambition, it ranks with an attempt to do calligraphy on toilet paper. And, to a considerable degree, the project has been a success. But it is not enough. It takes four plates on a printing press to produce color on a page, a black plate with text and three color plates, cyan, magenta and yellow. A press will hold a fixed number of plates, which limits the capacity for color in photography and ads. But the Internet has no such limitation on the number of color images it can produce. And video, too. Especially now that we have a couple of generations narcotized on television and video games, adults who find reading text laborious and uninviting, it is not surprising that so many have turned away from the newspaper, just as so many have turned away from books, in favor of images.

If you have read thus far, count yourself, along with me, in a dwindling minority.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

Mr. McIntyre, you completely missed the point and hit it on the head in the same post. Congrats!

When you say you printed off the top five stories from CNN, and were disappointed in their content, can't you say the same for your own paper?

Let's look at the current "most viewed" headlines from you sidebar.
"3 children killed at city hotel"
"Fire contained on Ocean City boardwalk"
"Session set for hectic ending"

What is the difference between these and the CNN headlines you referenced?

The reason that the "mullet strategy" works is because it allows people to express their viewpoints without relying on a editorial director to pick their letter to the editor out of 100's. They also get instant gratification and sometimes even timely response from the actual writer. Many of the Sun bloggers participate actively in the comments to their own articles. This is what brings the viewers back, and is something print can't replicate.

John, I am glad to hear I am not the only person who broke into daily journalism rewriting newsletters from country correspondents. Because my paper was a daily, we paid them some pittance. But the money was secondary to having everyone in town call them up each week to make sure their name was mentioned in the paper. A shame we got so sophisticated as to forget this.

Agreed.

I recently suggested to my local paper that they actually print real news stories and they said people were more interested in reading their own names or their neighbours names in print than actual local news.

In fact, they said this WAS local news.

The fact that no one can figure out what's happening with construction on our main thoroughfare is irrelevant I guess.

>now that we have a couple of generations narcotized
>on television and video games,
>adults who find reading text
>laborious and uninviting,

This is sort of off-topic, but reading actually is laborious -- it's not really a natural activity, certainly not as natural as watching, well, "video," let's call it. (Donald Norman, for one, has talked about this before.)

The advent of moving pictures really was a technological leap forward to a more evolutionarily established way for humans to take in information. Not only does everyone "know" how to process veido, but information density of pictures and video is potentially quite a bit higher than just text.

So alls we need is TV news that's worth a dang. There, alas, is the rub. And it's an achy, raw rub, innit?

PS Me, I love to read, don't get me wrong.

Interestingly, speaking as a Web editor, when I've gone to workshops on increasing site traffic and getting viewers to stay on your site, read the articles, etc., I have been told time and again that pictures are not effective when they accompany news stories--at least, not big and up top as they are in print.

From what I have been taught (and I don't have any hard data here), we have taught ourselves as Web readers to block out images, since they are so often ads that we'd rather not be bothered with when reading. Any pictures you see accompanying a news article will be small, or else viewable on a different page.

See how stories look on nytimes.com or washingtonpost.com, or most other news sites. Even when pictures play a large part in the story or there are a lot of them (such as in a NYT review of an art exhibit), they will rarely take up much or any space on the main article page. Notably, the Baltimore Sun's site often flouts these guidelines, as can be seen in the article John linked to the other day:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/bal-te.to.freeman23mar23,0,7689828.story.

In theory we should find this a bit annoying, especially since we are used to clicking on a story and immediately finding the headline and first two paragraphs on the screen. The Sun's site requires that I scroll down for the meat, increasing the likelihood that I will simply click away from the page.

Is this a phenomenon other people have heard of, or have experienced themselves? (As for video, I think embedded videos are too new a feature to say whether they will be viewed as "meat" or as potential ads to be avoided.)

Ben, I've heard something similar, namely that people learn to filter Web pages, much like they've learned (I guess) to flip past the ads in a magazine. But I think that if the picture or the video is the thing that people specifically want to see, they'll focus on that as much as they focus on the text of an online newspaper article while ignoring the surrounding noise.

I write and edit technical documentation -- learning materials -- and there's been huge interest in supplementing written documentation with videos, which can be had on all sorts of Web sites. The idea is that people can absorb information better, or differently at least, via moving pictures. The videos typically consist mostly of demonstrations with voiceover. I believe there's a generational shift as well, with folks who are more video-oriented favoring getting their information from tutorial videos and whatnot. With on-demand videos, it's reasonably easy to skip around, fast forward, or otherwise treat them the way one might work with the same information in a book. It doesn't appeal to me much, but it's clear to me that many folks think of it as natural.

Blah-blah. I'll shut up now. :-)

One of the nice things about the web is that there isn't such punishment for multiple pictures. For print, which stories get pictures (and how big they are) has to be carefully balanced. For the web, a picture requires only a small additional bit of memory - and, of course, having an appropriate picture.
I'm a rabid reader, and I appreciate the ability to easily "chase" stories I'm interested in, to seek out opinions, find sources, read other accounts, find pictures - easily and quickly. This is very underutilized currently - more should be done with picture series, with side stories, with details.
I do not watch videos, because I can get much more information much more quickly by reading. Videos are for entertainment and opinion. (And I'll leave the radio running in the background.)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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