by Walter Brasch
The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid publication that isn’t likely to win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon, splashed a full page picture of a smiling Jennifer Anniston on its Sept. 21 front cover. In the upper left-hand space it placed all-capitals text: “BRANGELINA 2004–2016.” Inside the Post were four full consecutive pages, and a half page and part of a column deeper in the newspaper, all devoted to one of the most critical social issues facing the country—Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting a divorce.
People magazine put the multi-million dollar couple on its cover, and teased us with the text: “WHY SHE LEFT” and “THE REAL STORY.” US magazine had an “EXCLUSIVE.” ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX NEWS, MSNBC, and NBC evening newscasts all devoted air time to the divorce. “Entertainment Tonight,” “TMZ,” dozens of entertainment-fueled TV programs, Reuters and AP news services, hundreds of daily newspapers and countless online blogs all had coverage of the epic event. The news also dominated the social media, especially Twitter and Facebook.
Barely covered that day by the establishment media was in-depth coverage and analyses of President Obama’s speech the day before at the United Nations general assembly. Also lightly covered was a petition to the UN Human Rights Council by
the Standing Rock Sioux sovereign nation to halt construction of a $3.8 billion 1,150 mile pipeline that would not only disturb that nation’s sacred burial grounds and could possibly pollute the Missouri River, but would be built on ground seized by eminent domain by Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas, Texas.
Why there was negligible coverage of public affairs issues and maximum coverage of a celebrity divorce is based upon economics and poor business practices.
Media profits, once running anywhere from 5 to 30 percent, depending upon the medium, declined significantly in the Great Recession during the last two years of the Bush–Cheney administration. Businesses significantly cut their advertising budgets; consumers stopped subscriptions.
It wasn’t long before consultants, not editors, were making decisions about ways to increase profits. The consultants, some making $500 per hour, advised owners to compensate for the decline of profits, they needed to cut back on the news staffs, as well as the budgets for in-depth coverage and salaries. With the decline of newsroom positions came more work for those who stayed on news staffs but, overall, fewer locally-produced stories, and increase in errors because of fewer copyeditors. The cuts in circulation now came not just from those who couldn’t afford the newspaper or magazine, but from those who saw a diminished news product and turned to other media for their information. With the decline in circulation came a forced decline in the cost of an ad leading to further declines on advertising revenue. The consultants often recommended turning to syndicates for news and to increase entertainment and celebrity news. The consultants were wrong.
Studies by the Pew Institute and the American Society of Newspaper Editors revealed that consumers wanted news not fluff. A Pew Study showed that during the first decade of the 21st century, only 17 percent of consumers who turned to mass media for news followed personalities, entertainment, and celebrity scandals “very closely.” Of the 19 categories, only coverage of other nations and science/technology ranked lower. Studies by the ASNE of interest in the current decade place celebrity news and scandals at the bottom of all categories.
The evidence is obvious—Americans want, and need, news. Hard news and not fluff. They want to know about weather, crime, and politics. They also want to see and read stories about health, the environment, and social issues that directly affect them.
But editors and media owners, for the most part, still believe entertainment and celebrity news is the way to restore circulation. And that’s why celebrity marriages, divorces, and scandals seem to be at the core of so many publications—and a major reason why circulation is declining for print newspapers and viewership in non-print media is not as strong as it could be.
Journalists and owners can blame the rise of digital and social media for stealing readers, but they are wrong. When news returns to newspapers, readers will follow.
[Dr. Brasch is professor emeritus of mass communications/journalism from Bloomsburg University. His latest book is Fracking America: Sacrificing Health and the Environment for Short-Term Economic Benefit.]