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.
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.