The Pleasure Principle

Newspapers should try giving readers what they want, not just what editors think they need.

Must the news be boring? I don’t mean to be tendentious. Asking whether news should or should not be interesting would have been seen as preposterous just a few years ago, before the extent of the newspaper crisis became fully evident. Newspaper front pages—in their modern configuration, anyway, which dates back to Joseph Pulitzer’s innovations of the 1880s—had long determined how we understood what news meant.

Headlines were carefully calculated graphic representations of import. The lead story could get a one-, two-, or three-column headline—which could be a single- or double-decker with a subhead—a weighting mechanism meant to allow the public to shape, order, and compartmentalize its understanding of world events. More recently, the obligatory “weather photo”—a reassuring image of sunbathers, cross-country skiers in unlikely settings, uplifting ethnic or sports celebrations, or kids with cute animals—signaled that the editors were empathetic toward their readers even as they did their editorial duties, like doctors who gave lollipops to children.

News, at least as practiced by the major broadsheets for decades, was a sacred trust. Readers needed news and had limited ways to learn about current events. Editors would tell us what to read, and we would read it. News didn’t have to be interesting, because it was important, and any self-styled citizen of the world needed to know what was important. Of course, print-newspaper readership is now in what may or may not be terminal decline, and news is available instantaneously on the Web, where the hallowed, exquisitely calibrated arts of the front page have been washed away like sand castles at high tide.

While one can have a separate debate over what is lost when the center no longer holds, when each of us lives in his own maximally distributed, fully customized info-space, only Pollyannas can doubt the change. And there is clearly a bigger discussion to be had about how newspapers can continue to thrive as readers increasingly move to the Web, where the profit opportunities remain slimmer than those in print. If only to forestall the inevitable deluge, why not consider a radical notion? Stop being important and start being interesting.

Far-out as it sounds, the raw materials for such a change are actually quite close at hand. Many newspapers already keep a running tally of what’s “interesting”: the real-time “Most Popular” boxes on their Web sites that list the most– e-mailed and most-blogged stories in the paper, as well as the most-used search terms. The Most Popular function serves as a shadow front page, highlighting what readers find interesting enough to send along to their friends or blog about, as opposed to what the editors want them to read. It’s a rough gauge of reader behavior, to be sure, but as it turns out, a fairly consistent one.

In my own attempt to formulate a reader-response theory, I reviewed a week’s worth of front pages of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times in September and compared them with each day’s most–e-mailed list, which seemed more useful than the most-blogged list, because it factors out agenda-driven blogging.

I had expected the most–e-mailed results to track the lineups of the more baldly audience-focused TV newscasts, which have increasingly made a fetish of “news that matters to you,” and hence are packed with tedious features on your health, your real estate, your job, your children, and so forth. Instead, the most–e-mailed lists, despite a smattering of parochial concerns, were a rich stew of global affairs, provocative insight, hot-button issues, pop culture, compelling narrative, and enlightened localism. In short, they were interesting. What they were not, generally, was important, at least not in the grand tectonic geopolitical sense.

Among the most–e-mailed articles on Friday, September 14, for example, was a feature that ran in The New York Times’ second arts section called “Paths of Resistance in the East Village.” The writer, John Strausbaugh, a particularly gifted chronicler of New Yorkiana, toured Manhattan’s legendarily left-leaning neighborhood with the photographer and video­grapher Clayton Patterson, who’d been tracking the transformation of the neighborhood from radical outpost to high-priced BoBo nesting perch for almost 30 years. It was a piece brimming with history, politics, real estate, and local lore, going back to 1857 and the first clashes between police and recent immigrants.

Two days earlier, as the front page commemorated the sixth anniversary of 9/11, the most–e-mailed list contained two stories about a just-deceased parrot named Alex, who in his 31 years had learned some 150 words; op-eds by Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd, then still confined to the digital purdah of TimesSelect and expostulating on China and throwing shade at General Petraeus, respectively; a report from Dresden about Germans’ peculiar fascination with Native American culture; and a trend piece about new social-networking sites for older people. Accompanying the 9/11 coverage on the Times front page, meanwhile, were reports on President Bush’s plans for the Justice Department, and Petraeus’s and Ryan Crocker’s arguments for ongoing U.S. involvement in Iraq; and, to show it was not all doom and gloom, a report from New York Fashion Week, complete with photo of Victoria Beckham. This story, despite a kicky header—“A Designer Gives a Spice Girl Some Lessons on What’s Sexy”—did not make the most–e-mailed list.

That Tuesday, Los Angeles Times e-mailers showed interest in a study that delineated differences in the brains of left- and right-wing people, and in a story about nuns in Santa Barbara who were about to lose their convent to pay debts incurred by a local church sex-abuse scandal. Among the most viewed stories was a Web-only report about how Vanessa Hudgens, star of the megahit High School Musical, and Disney were handling the revelation of a nude photo of the starlet, presumably a topic of great interest to TheTimes’ entertainment-business-heavy readership. The front page, meanwhile, covered Petraeus’s testimony before Congress, its implications for Bush’s Iraq policy, ongoing unrest in Pakistan, and the latest turn in the Clinton-Hsu fund-raising scandal, all of which more or less mimicked the other dailies, and news of which was available on virtually every Web portal. Over at The Washington Post, a trend piece on the rise of the “alpha geezer” (pushed onto page B3 of the print edition) made the e-mail rounds.

When newspapers and e-mailers do click, it’s not hard to see why. TheNew York Times hit the most–e-mailed jackpot with a Friday piece on San Francisco’s plan to offer health care to every uninsured resident—a story with potential canary-in-a-coal-mine significance for the grand 2008 debate on health care, and a bit of news-you-can-use to boot. And two L.A. Times front-page stories made the most–e-mailed list on Tuesday: a sad, gripping tale of a baby’s death on skid row and a brilliant feature—rich with the preposterousness of poseurish environmentalism—about people who’d decided to eat only food they could forage, including from Dumpsters.

Nevertheless, based on my very unscientific analysis, what readers think is interesting and what editors think is important tends to overlap less than one-quarter of the time. This could simply mean that because hard news is ubiquitous or already on the front page, Web users assume their friends already know about it and don’t need an e-mail to bring it to their attention.

But wouldn’t readers forward anything they find interesting? My more sobering conclusion is that readers might no longer need newspapers for news. And by “news” I mean the traditional newspaper functions of reporting on congressional hearings, city-council meetings, sporting events, earnings reports, and so forth. This is now commodity information, available instantly and everywhere, thanks to the wires and more-specialized services. Even “scoops,” traditionally the gas that fuels the journos’ competitive fires, bring only bragging rights, since what’s in the morning’s newspaper has already been digested on the Web, the radio, and the morning TV shows, and has been deposited in your in-box before you can be bothered to pick up an actual newspaper.

What unites the most–e-mailed list (and granted, it’s hard to draw a single thread through stories about parrots, nuns, and Dumpster-diving foodies) is uniqueness. These stories, as they say in marketing, offer a “value add,” something that’s not available on the vaguely Soviet-seeming syndication-fed news pages of AOL, Yahoo, or Google. The real value now lies in non-commodifiable virtues like deep reporting, strong narrative, distinct point of view, and sharp analysis, which even in the blogger era (or especially in the blogger era) is available only piecemeal. We’ve seen this need for reinvention before, as the newsweeklies have found their week-in-review function made ever more vestigial by the increasingly fast news cycle. The New York Times implicitly conceded the primacy of opinion and analysis when it elected to put Friedman—at the moment its most important asset—and other opinion writers behind the digital wall with TimesSelect. (And TimesSelect’s subsequent discontinuation isn’t necessarily a blot on the escutcheons of Friedman et al. More likely, it’s evidence of the impossibility of getting Web users to pay for anything other than proprietary information, live sports, or porn.)

Upping the “interesting” quotient of news is not an argument for abdicating vital traditional fourth-estate functions, just reimagining them. The lapses in oversight by the press in the lead-up to and early days of the Iraq War allowed the Bush administration to fudge democratic norms in ways that will haunt us for years. But did this happen because the newspapers didn’t report the news (the view held by hard-newsies) or because (my favored explanation) newspapers didn’t market the news, didn’t add enough value in terms of explaining what the news meant and why you, the media-addled citizen of the digital nation, should have cared about it? Savvy packaging of news might have allowed the public a better entrée into complex issues that were too often presented as spinach.

As a practical matter, this marketing calls for a tactical retreat for newspapers’ front pages away from commodity news (the aforementioned council meetings and so forth, all of which could now be covered by someone else, maybe one of those newfangled citizen-journalists) and toward something more muscular and even—at risk of total apostasy—more pleasurable. By “pleasurable,” I mean stories that are just fun to read. And they don’t all have to be about Dancing With the Stars—or parrots. Another example: In late August, The New York Times ran a story about new scientific explanations of the mechanics of out-of-body experiences. Surely this was a story with wide appeal, engaging everyone from evangelicals to philosophers to the death-obsessed to current and former acid-heads. Yet it was buried in the back of the front section. Meanwhile, the front page spotlighted a story about minor college sports teams (fencing, swimming) needing to hustle to find funding, an issue with perhaps a bigger demographic footprint, but of literally zero interest to anyone not immediately affected.

So what might the “news”-free front page of the future look like? Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch’s two New York–based newspapers—the New York Post and his new toy, The Wall Street Journal—are already offering unique takes on noncommodified news. The Post is invariably described as a “guilty pleasure,” as if reading news you’re actually interested in is something to apologize for. Virtually alone among the top-10 dailies, it is growing in circulation (a 25-cent cover price doesn’t hurt). The Post has many flaws, of course, among them shameless pandering, horribly punny headlines, occasionally shocking quasi-literacy, and a worldview at times not much more sophisticated than that of William Randolph Hearst’s turn-of-the-last-century rags. But it has achieved something unique in American journalism: It is a must-read daily newspaper for the quadrant of Manhattan society it so deftly courts. And it has become so by uncannily mirroring what its readership is interested in on any given day: usually a yeasty mix of political outrage, blood-boiling hypocrisy, misbehaving masters of the universe, and hot babes in some sort of peril. The Journal, as a business paper, has been using its front-page news digest to dispense with commodity news for decades, while employing its valuable real estate to pinpoint trends, elevate key personalities, and, with the lighter middle-column stories, reinforce its brand of wry amusement at the capitalist carnival. I may be imagining this, but even as Murdoch completes his takeover, the paper seems to be showing an increased willingness to throw itself about, to stamp itself on the financial world—an early-October leader (and most–e-mailed fave) declaring the end of the “Wal-Mart Era” being a prime example.

A reimagined broadsheet front page could draw from the Post’s id and The Journal’s superego, doing away with the soggy middle of commodity news in favor of a high-low mix of agenda-setting reportage and analysis, strong storytelling on topics not being covered everywhere else, and saucy, knowing takeouts on people the readership actually cares about. It would, in essence, invert the traditional relationship the newspaper has with readers. The old front page assumed your interest; the new front page would earn it. Like it or not, to compete in this new era, even serious news might need to be sexed-up, marketed with the kind of zeal that so far only Murdoch has been willing to muster. The point is not moving to an all-Britney-all-the-time footing. The most–e-mailed lists suggest that readers will consume meaningful, interesting (and maybe even “important”) journalism if they feel compelled, beguiled, seduced. The rest is just so much squawking.