Feeding Readers' Tabloid Appetites  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE NEWSPAPER BUSINESS    
From AJR,   September 1994

Feeding Readers' Tabloid Appetites   

Newspapers are in the business of giving people what they want. That's OK.

By John Morton
John Morton (mortoninc@msn.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.     


Time was, most U.S. newspaper buyers had a choice of the kind of journalism they wanted to read – everything from sober, "serious" newspapers to sensa- tional tabloids with lurid headlines and stories about crime and the picaresque antics of the prominent.

This was especially true of the larger cities. I can remember standing in a chow line at Fort Ord, California, in the mid-1950s and being hawked four San Francisco dailies – the Chronicle, Examiner, Call Bulletin and the News. In San Francisco in those days that didn't mean the journalistic quality ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but you get the idea.

If you go far enough back, even modest-sized cities offered readers choices. In the early 1920s, more than 500 towns published two or more dailies. In towns with just two, typically one was the serious, high-toned effort aimed at the establishment and the other targeted the blue-collar audience with heavy emphasis on crime and other public mayhem.

In effect, each newspaper tailored its efforts to satisfy the two broad public appetites that exist in every market. There was a lot of overlap, of course, and even the more sensational of a city's two newspapers tried to work in fundamental news coverage between the razzle-dazzle.

Two major economic developments reduced reader choice. The first was the Depression of the 1930s, which knocked out of business so many of the weaker newspapers that by the beginning of World War II the number of cities publishing two or more dailies had dropped to about 140. Most of the casualties were the more sensational newspapers, whose blue-collar readers tended to suffer more from the Depression's deprivations than readers of the establishment press.

The second economic development affected mainly newspapers: the development and explosive growth in the 1950s of television as a competitor for advertising revenue and readers' attention. The impact of this on newspapers was twofold: One, competition for advertising further weakened the economic base for all but the dominant newspaper in a market. And two, television could do sensational news so much better and more immediately than newspapers that newspapers gradually lost their hold on a type of journalism that was once theirs alone.

The sensational tabloids especially suffered from this, and most of them disappeared in the 1950s and 1960s. (An exception is the money-losing New York Post.) The loss of most sensational tabloids and the weaker papers in two-paper towns meant that by the late 1970s only 35 towns had two or more commercially competitive, fully independent newspaper voices. Since then, of course, the newspaper graveyard has been filling up. Today, there are only nine newspaper markets of consequence that have two or more dailies. (I'm excluding the small town where a competing paper is established from time to time – since history indicates they do not survive for long – and Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Daily News competes in only part of the market served by the Los Angeles Times.)

The disappearance of most of the sensational newspapers brought to the surviving newspapers if not a duty perhaps some desire to dip into the tawdry. The success of the television tabloid shows and the spectacular circulation of the supermarket tabloids (which are not really newspapers but which jump hard on events involving celebrities) clearly show a huge public appetite that even "serious" newspapers are loathe to ignore in this era of sagging circulation.

Mainstream newspapers, of course, tend to approach the allegations of a Paula Corbin Jones or the O.J. Simpson case with far more circumspection than is typical of the television tabloid shows or even many local television news broadcasts. And newspapers too tend to dwell on the sociological significance of these events, a kind of respectable wrapping for a disreputable package.

Already elements of the press are agonizing over whether newspapers have gone too far in pandering to the public's appetite for celebrity scandals and the like (see "Judgment Calls", page 18). Commenting on the search for what the vast media coverage of these events "all means," the New Yorker recently stated: "That search is now in full cry, and will soon be followed by the search for what the media coverage of the media coverage of what it all means means."

What it means for newspapers, at least, is that they are in the business of feeding readers the information they want to read about. And if that information sometimes is lightweight and salacious and sometimes displaces or overshadows information they ought to read, so be it.

The First Amendment, after all, makes no judgments about the quality of information it protects. The outrageous, the provocative, the irritating, even the irresponsible are protected, as well as their opposites. The American public is entitled to it all. From this, however imperfectly, the truth emerges. l

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