Don't Worry, It Will Go Away
American newspapers have had cycles of sensationalism throughout their history.
By John Morton
John Morton (email@example.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
Newspapers and other media invariably reflect the spirit of the times. The reason is simple: It's profitable.
Serious journalists have been wringing their hands of late over the extravagant, even morbid, coverage of the tragedies befalling Princess Diana and Gianni Versace and the public disgrace of Marv Albert, not to mention the O.J. Simpson trial, along with other examples of celebrity-driven journalism. Serious news photographers have been cursed and spat upon because of the paparazzi fallout. Pundits have raised questions about whether "serious" newspapers, as opposed to the supermarket tabloids, should indulge so fulsomely in this kind of coverage and worry about where it will all lead.
Well, of course, serious newspapers should cover this stuff. Interest in it is a sign of the times, and if newspapers have learned anything in this era of falling circulation, it is that they must not ignore subjects of intense interest to readers.
As for where it will all lead, it's likely that the overemphasis on celebrity journalism forms will just fade away as the times change. It has happened before. It is worth remembering that in the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh complained bitterly that the press' relentless scrutiny of his private life drove him out of the country.
Clearly some of the coverage has been overwrought. Judging by the voluminous stories about Versace's extravagant lifestyle and his entourage of beautiful people, one would have thought that he was an important world statesman on the order of, say, Winston Churchill, instead of a dress designer.
Celebrity journalism, though, does have a legitimate place in newspapers, because the lives and travails of celebrities often resonate in the lives of ordinary people. It was not just that Diana was a beautiful princess engaged in charitable work, but also that she was a betrayed wife who refused to be quiet about it. The O.J. Simpson trial touched on all the sensitivities created by our greatest national tragedy, slavery, and its legacy.
Celebrity journalism is merely a variant of sensationalism, and it has always been fodder for the media. It seems to come in waves, rising up, then subsiding, then rising up again. America's first real newspaper – Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick – contained, in addition to more serious reporting, a story about the French king's dalliance with the prince's wife.
Sensationalism reared up again in the 1830s with the creation of the penny press, when newspapers for the first time sought large circulations by appealing to common people with extensive, flamboyant coverage of crime and celebrities. In time the penny press became more serious as an increasingly literate population demanded broader coverage.
Sensationalism returned in the late 19th century, initiated by Joseph Pulitzer and his New York World, then taken over the top by William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal. Newspapers then had fairly small circulations, and readers tended to be well educated and prosperous. Pulitzer targeted New York's swelling immigrant population, with the idea that coverage of crime and celebrities would draw huge numbers of readers who would then be exposed to the more serious journalism the World also carried. Criticized for his approach, he responded, "I want to talk to a nation, not to a select committee."
World War I tamed the Pulitzer-Hearst wave of sensationalism, which had been widely emulated around the country. But after the war, as the nation entered the high-rolling 1920s, another wave fueled by the creation of picture tabloids engulfed the nation. The tabs became more serious in the 1930s because the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. Joseph Medill Patterson, founder of the Daily News in New York, was said to have told his editors that the Depression and its impact on the lives of ordinary people had become the big story, not mayhem and the frolics of the stars.
ýtill, sensationalism has never completely died out, nor has it ever been limited to a few tabloids. "Serious" newspapers have always carried their share, although not so prominently displayed as in the tabloids. The tabs, of course, maintained a heavily sensationalist approach until most of them died in the 1950s, replaced by local television news programs that could present blood, gore and celebrity silliness better and faster than newspapers.
The point of this excursion into history is that newspapers respond to the interests of readers. These are relatively untroubled times, when readers are drawn to less weighty matters than depressions and world wars. But this, too, will change, and so will newspapers. ###