In the search for an online model to replace the deadtree newspaper, too much of the discussion focuses on the technology and not enough on the way that the technology actually gets used. Case in point is the Huffington Post, the phenomenally successful group blog which gets namechecked in all such discussions, largely because it actually makes money and now ostentatiously funds the kind of progressive investigative journalism dying in traditional newspapers. But here’s something a little sobering:
But if political coverage gets the most attention in Washington, more than half Huffington Post’s traffic is driven by gossip and entertainment stories. The day the Froomkin news broke, for example, the site’s most popular story wasn’t about health care – it was “American Flag Bikini Moments: What’s YOUR Favorite?” Indeed, the Washington City Paper’s Amanda Hess called attention to the sometimes schizophrenic nature of the site in a recent piece: “Liberal Politics, Sexist Entertainment.” Similarly, columnist Simon Dumenco, last month in AdAge, wrote that the Huffington Post “likes to pretend that it’s a respectable voice in the mediasphere, but it shamelessly pumps up its traffic by being just as trashy as, say, Maxim.”
If you look at Fairfax’s online content, you see something very similar. The headlines might be worthy stories about politics or the environment; the featured links are about nude celebs.
If this is a strategy to drive traffic, why does it work? If Age readers are satisfied with the tone of the print edition, why do they seek something more racy on the site?
I suspect it comes down to the different ways news gets consumed online as opposed to in print. The traditional broadsheet was designed for reflective reading during a leisurely middle-class breakfast. You sip your tea; you ponder the weighty issues of the day. Online news, I would guess, gets skimmed much more quickly, often during often hours. Cubicle drones quickly scanning the headlines in between tasks are not in a position to absorb an in-depth analysis of the budget. But a picture of a drugged-up celebrity might provide a moment of diversion, something to quickly email to a friend.
In other words, even had the internet not been invented, traditional journalism would have been in trouble since it no longer suits the patterns of consumption fostered by neo-liberalism. We live, now, in the age of American flag bikinis.