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Saturday, February 10, 2007

You Can Always Get What You Want

The insane wall-to-wall coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith brings back something that occurred to me while I was working on my media-related Comps (thesis) at Carleton: Now that people get much of their news online, media companies have much more precise info about what content we consume and how we consume it. It used to be that a newspaper or broadcast was purchased/consumed as complete package, as far as the companies behind them were concerned. There were some means for feedback by which editors knew, for example, that the sports section was very important to readers. But consumer preferences and consumption habits were pretty vague.

Contrast with now: Editors know that 90% (or whatever) of their readers viewed the story about Anna Nicole Smith dying, and that most went to it first thing from the homepage. And, in addition to knowing precisely which parts of the news are most of interest to the audience, revenue is starting to be coupled to individual stories -- online readers don't get the whole news and advertising "package," they generate money-making page views for only the stories that interest them. If you're an editor, under pressure to maintain profits in a tough business, knowing exactly what your customers want makes it really hard to justify not giving it to them. If showbiz news generates twice the readership of international coverage and is a third of the cost, where are the budget cuts that the owner has asked for going to come from? We get exactly what we want, which, at the risk of sounding a little "eat your vegetables!", is not necessarily what we need. And in my example, the market is actually likely to give us even less international news than we want because the cost is higher. Sigh...it's not as simple as all that, of course, but I can't help but think that having precise info on what people are interested in makes life tougher for serious news in the mainstream media.

Anyway, I'll second Jack Cafferty on the current frenzy.


doug said...

The story made the front page of the Strib (the real paper, not just the web site), but the headline, subhead, and first paragraph gave no indication that she had died. They just jumped right into analysis of her tabloid life.

Head: What so fascinates people about Anna Nicole Smith?

Sub: Her oversized struggles turned her into a perfect pop culture icon.

Story: It was hard to watch Anna Nicole Smith. And, of course, harder not to.

Scant hours after new emerged of her death on Thursday at 30, many people were hard-pressed to describe exactly what Anna Nicole Smith was.


The rest of the story is less an obituary than a collection of quotes and comments in search of an answer to that question.

Perhaps she's the anti-Barbaro. Like said horsey, she was an ultimately inconsequential who gained substance in death as a metaphor for how we live our lives. Barbaro was noble and courageous (apparently), so he becomes a symbol of the, the can-do spirit, the valiant warrior, and everything that is good and virtuous. And Anna Nicole Smith, generally viewed as someone more beast-like than genuinely human, serves as a metaphor for the the decline of civilization and offers lessons in how not to live.

lj said...

that's what really weirds me out about news stories like this: not that the media is pushing them, but that these stories really are apparently what everyone wants to hear. along with "eat your vegetables," i always feel like telling the populace, "just ignore them [vapid celebrities] and they'll go away."

while (sortof) on the subject of playboy playmates, I've wanted to pass this along to everyone, but keep forgetting. the whole list is pretty awesome, but that one in particular I absolutely love for several reasons.

teague said...

Doug, I think you've got it right. How ironic that our example of the heroic person is a horse and our example of what kind of person not to be is a person. But I bet the media wouldn't have lionized (horsonized?) Barbaro like that if they had known about his strong feelings about global warming.

LJ, that's hilarious. I've seen a number of bits of evidence that make me question whether professional money managers are actually worth what people pay (most of them, anyway). But if the approach in that link was pursued more broadly, not only would people get better returns through the Playboy Bunnies' superior money management skills, but people (er, men) would pay closer attention to their finances because they would go to see their advisor so much more often.