E-mail This To All Your Friends!—Generally, I don't read past the first few paragraphs of any story in The Onion: America's Finest News Source. The headlines and the wacky lead are the funny parts—the rest is just made-up, tired fluff. As a member of the media, I enjoy scanning its pages to see what big-buzz story parody makes the front page or which cultural absurdity will be thrown under the microscope of comedic scrutiny (i.e. "Women Who Claims Book Changed Her Life Has Not Changed"). And as a member of the media, a recent article threw my industry under the microscope with surgeon-like precision, rife with "made-up, tired fluff" and a heavy dose of reality.
The article, "'Most E-Mailed' List Tearing New York Times' Newsroom Apart," aims the lens at a big issue all news media—even the parodying, Onion kind—have to take seriously. The Onion reports chaos at the New York Times as tensions rise and morale drops due to the most e-mailed feature on the Times' website—a highly valued and prized accomplishment causing Pulitzer-prize winning reporters to forgo less attractive assignments to seek out those "more e-mail friendly." While The Onion clearly has blown the whole issue out of proportion, there is a huge pink elephant sitting just below my usual three-paragraph limit: a made-up quote by Executive Editor Bill Keller about his belief that the "Most E-Mailed" list has caused "troubling changes" in the Times' editorial focus.
There is a bitter truth in that fake quote.
While I'm sure the Times hasn't really received an abnormally high number of requests for transfers to their Home & Garden and Travel desks, the pressure created by the "Most E-Mailed" list is real. In June of 2006, the American Journalism Review compared most e-mailed lists and newspapers to television ratings and TV news—in short, the doom of America's newspapers.
Before the Internet, newspapers only came in one form: paper. Today, nearly every story, op-ed, column, feature, investigative report and obit can be read online in addition to print. In fact, there is usually more content on a publication's website than in the paper edition. The entire industry is moving to the Web, and activity on the Web is trackable. Whenever a reader visits a site, clicks on a story, e-mails it to her friend or posts it on her blog, we know. If the top-read story on the New York Times' website is about kitty therapists (as The Onion claims), who's to think a reporter looking to get his byline read around the world wouldn't want to replicate that success? Even more, why wouldn't the publisher or owner of a news publication encourage their reporters to find and write stories the readers want to read, fluff or not? It just makes business sense, and therein lies the problem. Media as business. The fate of the print news industry is tied to the Internet, and while the trend doesn't equate with the death of journalistic integrity, it will enter us journalists striving to report hard news into a popularity contest in which everyone loses.