Friday, May 22, 2009

Rachel's Preakness win sparks war among women (and other Internet balderdash)

There isn't really a war among women over Rachel Alexandra's Preakness win. But that's the subject of an outrageously funny (to me anyway) story at the venerable Onion online ... reporting the news for 250 to 350 years, depending on which version of their own fabricated history you're trying to follow.

It's both amusing and almost enough to get me to throw myself under a horse van that fake news (the Onion, The Daily Show) seem to have thriving advertiser support, while actual news sources are struggling with revenues. Guess it shows that readers and viewers are more interested these days in making fun of the truth than knowing it.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the aforementioned mock news outlets. It takes both knowledge of the real news and a true creative flair to produce such content. But I'd have thought it would also take knowledge of the real news to appreciate the sarcastic send-up of that news. And that would require patronizing newspapers, magazines and television news, or at least their Web sites. Yet almost all are struggling with advertising revenues, which are supposed to be a product of proven readership and viewership.

But I guess it isn't necessary to actually know what's going on to make fun of it, or to act like you know. Just this morning I editorialized for our paper on the incredible uselessness of some information at Yahoo Answers, where Yahoo members can go to ask questions and receive responses from people who don't necessarily know, well, anything. Like this one, from two years ago (I just stumbled upon it this week) claiming the small weekly paper one county to my west, The Oxford Public Ledgerhas been out of business a long time.

When I asked my own question -- that was, how can this be corrected, considering I have about three dozen recent copies of that paper in a stack six feet from my desk -- I was treated like a freak with three heads. I was asked, what does it matter that the information is wrong? I was told that people should know the answers they receive from other yahoos at Yahoo (my term, not theirs) could very well be incorrect. ... Just let it go.

The responses were so dissatisfying that I deleted the question.

One user insulted me, asking how an editor in the newspaper business lacked sufficient understanding of the language to realize that my question in itself was pointless. Why bother correcting information that was never guaranteed to be true?

I'm missing the point? ... You're missing the point! ... The whole damned Internet is missing the point!

The point is, when someone asks a question -- anywhere, of anyone, I should think -- they don't just expect an answer, they expect the answer. This one isn't a judgment call; it isn't "Guys? Do you think birthmarks are unattractive?" ... It's a piece of supposedly factual freaking information and it's wrong. Why is there apparently no possible means of correcting or even simply deleting it?

But from the topic of horses, I've wantonly digressed.

I'll try to get back to that more gratifying subject by the end of the night.


  1. Actually, "fake news" were about the only media outlets to tackle the "real stories" over the last years, while the traditional media (print and broadcast) is more interested in the public perception of fake stories, rather than providing the the public with the truth.

    If 100 people have 1.000 "serious" news outlets to choose two or three from and 10% of them also watch the only Daily Show on the market, success of the latter doesn't indicate a clear customer preference, it does indicate market oversaturation in the "serious" department.

    As much as I would sentimentally hate to see them gone, in an era of internet access I don't really need two local daily papers offering the same content as the world's best at a lower level, unless they do such a good job covering local affairs that I'll buy them for this feature alone.

    I totally agree however that Yahoo Answers is badly written and so often factually wrong that it's basically useless.

    Interesting article, anyway!

  2. I'm not 100 percent sure what you mean about the "fake" news tackling the "real stories." I do know The National Enquirer is who exposed the John Edwards scandal, and was trying to do so for months while the major media turned a blind eye.

    I definitely won't go to the mat for the major networks, cable news, New York Times, etc., as infallible sources, or even as having impeccable news judgment. There has certainly been (especially among cable news outlets) a trend toward covering celebrity news and the shouting-match style of political coverage (or snarky insults, i.e., O'Reilly and Olbermann) than on hard news, well reported. Their business model (24-hour news cycle, always on) became much tougher to succeed with when the Web came along to do it better.

    But these news "judgments" are actually what seems to be scoring with the viewing public. O'Reilly and Olbermann do very well, and now we learn that Fox's Glenn Beck has risen to No. 3, I believe, and I'm just not getting it.

    At any rate, with 20 years in local journalism, I still believe newspapers in most communities are the most reliable source not only of breaking news, but investigative journalism. North Carolina's ex-governor and his wife are in hot water solely because the News & Observer of Raleigh was persistent in mining for information and produced evidence suggesting Mike Easley might have benefited from free vehicles for his family, free plane rides, and a quid pro quo, $170,000 a year job for his wife with North Carolina State University.

    That's what newspapering is supposed to be about. I know in our town, we've never stopped trying to provide it. But a combination of factors -- not the least of which is an unemployment rate that has hit 15 percent *before* this recession -- have conspired to keep revenues stagnant (or worse) for smaller papers, too, even though we have no real competition, online or otherwise. So staffing gets reduced and ultimately you're stuck running meeting to meeting, wreck to wreck and fire to fire just trying to get the daily must-have news in print.

    For five consecutive years, from 1998 to 2002, we produced an investigative story or series that earned at least third place in the state. Staff reductions have made it impossible to invest hours in that kind of reporting since. It's tragic, because I could rattle off a half-dozen issues in our local community that merit in-depth reporting. There just aren't bodies or hours to do it.

    It's a vicious cycle: A few people stop reading; advertisers see reduced circulation and buy fewer ads; revenues decrease; newspaper companies cut back; less news means less reason to read; advertisers take note; revenues decrease; newspaper companies cut back ...

    I would contend the only player in that ring-around-the-rosey who has reason and the power to stop the cycle are newspaper companies themselves, by digging in their heels and saying "no more reductions. We'll either win this battle or die where we stand."

    I'd rather go out slugging, with good newspapers and good reporting, than be complicit in bleeding our own selves dry.

    Truth be told, the only place the Internet or alternative news and information sources have really hurt smaller local papers would be in the classifieds. Now that you can advertise anything for free on Craigslist (in most locations, there are small fees in some), newspaper classifieds have dwindled considerably. That's revenue we'll likely never get back, and it was a significant source of revenue, to be certain.

    Otherwise, people WILL still read newspapers, and statistics bear this out. Scarborough Research determined that out of three college grads read a newspaper regularly (every day or almost every day). And two out of three people ages 18 to 34 read a paper at least once a week.

    Find out what serves those groups and provide it daily and we'll be in business a very long time, still printing dead-tree editions.

  3. That's "two out of three" college grads ...

  4. I alluded to the fact that the Daily Show brands itself as a "fake news" format, although this arguably wrong, because they don't usually make stuff up. What I meant by "real stories" was the really important stuff, like actually investigating White House scandals (a made up reason for a war here, fundamental violations of the constitution and basic human rights there).

    To be sure, be "serious" I meant news outlets that want to be taken seriously, not only those that actually justify it.

  5. Gotcha. ... And yes, the "Daily Show" often calls itself "fake news," but usually the news is real, they're just mocking it. ... I guess they're sort of a "fake newscast," done for humor.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.