Patterico's Pontifications


The Internet: Aiding the Race to Appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 12:10 am

Ask an L.A. Times journalist why people read the L.A. Times (or any similar newspaper), and they are likely to say things like this: the top-notch political news coverage; the Pulitzer-prize winning investigative articles; or the insightful columnists.

Now ask someone at work why he or she reads the L.A. Times. If they do — and increasingly, they don’t — they’ll say things like this: the sports section; the comics; the crossword; the classifieds; or the horoscope (there’s a reason these oh-so-serious papers all carry a horoscope; it sells papers).

Until recently, journalists were able to kid themselves that people read their paper for the hard news and political coverage. And they had their delusions confirmed on a daily basis. After all, whenever they went to parties and dinners, they spoke with other journalists, who all read the paper for the hard news and political coverage. At one of these parties, if you asked someone: “Did you read that article or op-ed by so-and-so about such-and-such?” — why, the chances were good that the other journalist would say yes.

It was thus easy to believe that the hundreds of thousands of subscribers to the paper — or at least most of them — were similarly reading the paper, as they say about Playboy, for the articles.

And then came the Internet age.

Now newspapers can put traffic counters on their Web sites, and they can see at a glance exactly what’s bringing in the traffic. And it ain’t local homicides in South Los Angeles, or the latest Pulitzer-winning series of articles. It’s Paris Hilton and Kobe Bryant.

And, because these same newspapers are losing revenue at an alarming rate, more than ever they feel the pressure to write stories that bring in eyeballs. And now they know exactly what stories those are.

You get the crappy news coverage you ask for — nowadays, more than ever before.

P.S. To his credit, Tim Rutten made these exact points a while back, in this column. I’ll link it because I know you didn’t read it. That’s not why you get the paper.

31 Responses to “The Internet: Aiding the Race to Appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator”

  1. I remember reading a LAT critic say something like this 15 years ago:
    If you read the LAT, you must believe women lounge around all day in their bras (from all the lingerie ads in the LAT) and you must believe that woman never die (because women are never mentioned in the obituaries).

    I kept subscribing to the LAT because they generally had pretty good coupons. But I gave up on that about seven years ago.

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  2. “And, because these same newspapers are losing revenue at an alarming rate…”



    The L.A. Times generated $1,116,858,000 worth of revenue last year and had an operating profit of 20% of revenue.

    It’s not that hard to read a financial report.

    alphie (015011)

  3. Guess again.

    From: Hiller, David
    Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2007 9:17 AM
    Subject: Times Change – What’s Next

    Folks –

    I want to bring you up to date on change underway at The Times, what to look for next, and what you can do.

    First, evidence mounts every day of the big, pressing need to change our business. The old model is broken, and it’s showing in our financial performance. Revenue in April was down nearly 9%, and May will be down about the same. Cash flow is down even more, with April 34% below last year – leaving us with a cash flow margin in the low teens.

    Pablo (99243e)

  4. Let’s wait ’til the end of the year report and see what the facts are, Pablo.

    L.A. Times operating revenue:

    2005 – $1,111,052,000
    2006 – $1,116,858,000
    2007 – ???

    I wouldn’t stake my reputation by quoting a home office hatchet man.

    alphie (015011)

  5. Our humble host wrote:

    You get the crappy news coverage you ask for — nowadays, more than ever before.

    Agreed. But does that not mean that, if the Los Angeles Times is a crappy newspaper, it’s because its customers want a fluff newspaper?

    Dana (3e4784)

  6. There are plenty of newspapers, typically free, that include comics, television listings and sports. Yet the major metropolitan dailies live on.

    The metropolitan newspaper formula includes coverge of diverse areas, such as business, nightlife and chess, on the theory that readers expect to get more than the essentials in the package.

    bunkerbuster (af22b4)

  7. Just because a particular type of story–say investigations of political corruption–don’t attract as many readers as Paris Hilton coverage, it doesn’t mean they are not essential to the paper’s financial well-being.

    There are too many readers who are directly affected by political corruption to give up reporting on it. When papers ignore corruption that eventually surfaces somewhere, somehow, they lose credibility among readers and, in turn, advertisers.

    The free papers and Web sites that lure eyeballs away with sensational coverage exist in the margines of mainstream papers that do serious coverage. They will never be a replacement for them. If, say, the L.A. Times goes away tomorrow. Something based on a very similar formula will quickly take its place. Bet on it.

    bunkerbuster (af22b4)

  8. LAT Times operating Revenue from the 2006 Tribune Co. 10-K:

    2004 $1,134,780
    2005 $1,111,052
    2006 $1,116,858 (Adjusted: $1,094,000)

    The additional week in fiscal year 2006 increased publishing advertising revenues, circulation revenues, and operating profit by approximately 2%, or about $22 million. Looks like a trend, particularly when adjusted for inflation.

    Investors are not impressed. In the past five years, the Tribune Company (owner of the LAT) has lost about 12% of its share value while the S&P 500 has gained about 34%. Not exactly masters of the universe results – Nevertheless they still think their smarter than us.

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  9. I should note that the annual figures above are in thousands. That is, you need to add three zeros, so $1,134,780 is $1,134,780,000.

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  10. You’d think a savvy investor like Sam Zell should have realized that the LA Times and Chicago Tribune aren’t worth the $8.2 billion he’s buying them for.

    Too bad the parties involved only had JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley to advise them on the deal.

    There’s better financial advisors available on the internets…and their advice is free!

    alphie (015011)

  11. Way to shuffle those goalposts off the field, alphie. Remember when this was about revenue?

    Pablo (99243e)

  12. Boy, Alphie sure knows how to whistle past the graveyard. He may be one of the LAT staffers who did not opt for the buyout and is still whimpering in the corner hoping for salvation of his job! I still subscribe to the LAT (I’m the greater fool in the old line) and occasionally even manage to read a Rutten column to the end without wretching. Rutten’s column on the proposed purchase of the Wall Street Journal by Murdoch was particularly enlightening. Rutten knows that rigorous separation of the editorial page from the news pages is the hallmark of a serious paper–but seemingly is oblivious to the fact that such standard is not met by the LAT.

    Alphie you might think about the fact that Murdoch will pay cash for the Wall Street Journal, while Zell is coming in on borrowed money and is structuring the deal so that the employees of Chicago Tribune Company are themselves at most financial risk–in essence he’s “selling” the company to its employees.

    But if Alphie wants to read the financial entrails of the LAT in its 10-K and proclaim like the Delphic Oracle that he sees a great future for the Times, then more power to Alphie (and to the poor schnooks at the various parts of the Tribune Company who are gambling their future finances on the Zell deal).

    On the other hand I see a journalistic Titanic that has hit an iceberg of reader disgust and increasing irrelevance. The passenger/employees are jumping (or being thrown) over the side and equipment (West Magazine is the most recent section that’s being given the old heave ho) is also being tossed over the side. The old ship may not sink, but it’s definitely going to be lying lower in the water.

    Mike Myers (2e43f5)

  13. Excellent post, although I wouldn’t fault the Internet for more accurately reflecting what people want. Don’t blame the mirror for the unflattering image. What’s even worse is how many newspapers are gutting their print editions, repelling the serious readers who remain. They give less value for the money, and then fret about losing subscribers.

    Bradley J. Fikes (1c6fc4)

  14. I see it now. Alphie is a contrarian. Everything you write will be contrarianized by Alphie.

    Alphie is just another blogger I will page past.

    davod (3392f5)

  15. Oh, I think we can blame a mirror for showing an unflattering image, when we have worked so long and hard in our educational system to make any sense of honor or values into a joke. I won’t even begin to discuss the teaching of history, civics, or critical thinking. Education today is ALL about holding the jaded interests of the tuned out, squelching the accomplished, and championing the incompetent.

    The LA TIMES reflects popular culture, and our whole society has profited from the values of crudity by which we seem to be entranced. Do I have solutions? None that would be accepted. But since we have worked so hard to turn coke sniffing vapid socialities and hormone treated athletes with fidelity issues into ersatz “heroes,” I am not surprised by the LA TIMES trying to make some more coinage from our base culture.

    Curdmugeon (2b8b3d)

  16. Speaking of the WSJ, I am hoping against hope that Murdoch doesn’t get his grubby paws on it. The WSJ is a well-written newspaper for serious readers. I’ve subscribed to the Internet version for years. But if Rupe gets it, I’ll probably cancel and find another paper, perhaps the Financial Times.

    Bradley J. Fikes (1c6fc4)

  17. i agree that paris hilton isn’t worth the coverage, unless she generates interesting legal issues…
    but kobe bryant is important. he’s more important than you are, patterico. millions of native angelenos all over the world root for the lakers, and follow his box scores. i love basketball, and i’ve been a laker fan since the franchise moved to los angeles from minneapolis in 1960. the lakers are the great franchise of the nba, having long since eclipsed the celtics. by all rights, the lakers should win the title about half of the time, and they need a couple more pieces in the mix, besides kobe, to do this next year. they also need to bring back jerry west to run the team. never fear, the invisible hand of the league which has brought three great centers to los angeles in my lifetime, in deals that didn’t make sense, is poised to act again.

    oh, and bunkerbuster (#6), here’s a former los angeles city schools chess champ to tell you that chess is important too.

    assistant devil's advocate (5699e8)

  18. Of two people I know who still read it, both are in their early 70s; one is extremely liberal and the other reads it for the garden section, sports, etc., and is mad about those sections being cut back. Doesn’t bode well for the LAT’s future.

    Patricia (824fa1)

  19. I still subscribe to a couple of papers, not the Times, and almost never read them. I read parts of the WSJ each week but most of wjat I read is the online edition. At least half the paper versions go into the recycle bin unopened. The people who still read the Times probably have nothing better to do and many are the customers for the fluff. THe best asset most newspapers have, I think, are their archives. Unfortunately, they don’t do a good job of marketing this and creating a business plan to sell the stories. You should be able to read the archive story for a small fee and pay a larger fee to copy it. The sports section would probably be better on-line with video and other multimedia for those with broad band.

    Mike K (86bddb)

  20. Several decades ago, I was a reporter in Rockford, Ill., when Newspaper Guild Local No. 5 went on strike. Since we were a small local, we had to spend three hours a day walking the picket line. While doing so, I conducted an informal survey of passers-by, asking them what they missed about their local daily newspaper, which was not able to publish during the strike. Most of the respondents missed (in no particular order) the comics, the horoscope, the grocery ads, and maybe the sports section. Out of roughly a hundred respondents, exactly one told me he missed “the front page news,” and exactly one more told me he missed “the front page headline.” No one missed the in-depth coverage of local news that we reporters thought we were working so hard to provide.

    Dave Wollstadt (722901)

  21. say things like this: the top-nothc political news coverage

    I think it’s good that they have editors, too.

    Ooh, snap!

    David N. Scott (71e316)

  22. Shouldn’t the headline for the post be “Paris Hilton On Toilet; Media In It”?

    tom (612cba)

  23. Davod,

    How can you defend yourself against a charge of being a contrarian on the internets?

    No, I’m not?


    A few financial facts about the LA Times:

    1. Its revenue was up in 2006 over 2005
    2. A group led by Sam Zell is making an $8.2 billion bid to take the company the LA Times is the biggest part of private.
    3. Its pension fund is overfunded by $200 million, hardly the sign of a failing 20th century company (see auto, steel, airline company pension funds for comparison).

    The LA Times certainly faces challenges, but…

    alphie (015011)

  24. Its revenue was up in 2006 over 2005

    Uh, did you miss the explanation of why this isn’t really so? There was an extra week in FY 2006; comparing 52-weeks to 52-weeks, they were down.

    Rob Crawford (240cf9)

  25. Literal “up is downism” Rob?

    alphie (015011)

  26. Didn’t alphie make a similar ass out of himself at Protein Wisdom until, by common unanimous request, he was banished? And he has the temerity to show up again to be derided, mocked, and ridiculed for leftist stupidity. Amazing. That is the classic definition of a masochist. Or an idiot–take your pick.

    MikeD (0cf735)

  27. “i agree that paris hilton isn’t worth the coverage, unless she generates interesting legal issues…
    but kobe bryant is important. he’s more important than you are, patterico.”

    Whatever. Did I complain that the L.A. Times was covering Kobe instead of me? No. So your insult is just gratuitous.

    Whether he’s more important than, say, the plight of murdered victims in Compton (which is a more relevant comparison) is for every reader to decide. My guess: you think he is. Personally, I don’t. But again, it’s for every person to decide what’s “important” for them. For most, vacuous celebrity like Paris Hilton is more “important” than even someone like Kobe, who at least has true talent.

    Patterico (2a65a5)

  28. Until recently, journalists were able to kid themselves that people read their paper for the hard news and political coverage.

    From Fatty Arbuckle to Jon Benet Ramsey, journalists have not kidded themselves what people read.

    steve (4b9a58)

  29. Insulting half of your consumer base isn’t a part of a successful business model. (reference negative stories about Americans and Americans after 2000 vs falling media stocks during the same time frame.) Before 2004 most websites were either ego or specialty based. Before 2002 most blogs were daily journals about “Me, me, me!” or about home brewery recipes, needleworking patterns and cats in funny costumes.

    Then…a few political websites and blogs broke major stories that the MSM weren’t covering at all. Currently, the blogosphere is outperforming the MSM in the area of investigative reporting. If you want to read about local gossip or yesterday’s news, read the newspaper. If you want to read breaking news, read the blogs.

    203 million Americans are now on the internet. 168 million of them get some or all of their news and info from the WWW and from the blogs in particular.

    Had the MSM not been so negative in their reporting by insulting Americans on a daily basis, and in particular, those of the Red State variety, the blogosphere would most likely have remained a place for “Me, Me, Me!” …and cats in funny costumes.

    The MSM (and many powerbrokers of every stripe and kind) still underestimate the power of the internet. Not even Google or Yahoo can control the narrative and memes.

    Scream and yell and cry about it all you wish, but the facts are the facts. In today’s world, the ad hom and the red herring are rapidly going the way of the DoDo. It is a Brave New World. It is time to come to terms with it.

    Warren Bonesteel (034e95)

  30. The only reason I subscribe to the LAT is that my 12-year-old son likes to read about the Dodgers. When he’s off to college, I can’t imagine continuing my subscription (assuming the LAT still exists then).
    The calendar section can be useful, but their current and former writers like Corina Chocano, Robert Hilburn etc are so mind-numbingly self-important, like a self-parody of an MSM writer.

    Jack (c639d3)

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