Tabloid journalism on the Web takes a hit

Numbers never added up for Fox’s brand of online news

This column appeared Jan. 5, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review.  Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

On the same day word came that the News Corp. was shuttering its online division — effectively gutting its online news and sports operations — Web users who surfed over to FoxNews.com could read about a reported sighting of the escapees from a Texas prison.

Or they could read the off-lead piece, which foxnews.com’s editors deemed the second most newsworthy item of the day: “Tempest in a D-Cup: Jenna Franklin had something BIG in mind for her 16th birthday, but now the plastic surgeon says no.”

That recipe — a dollop of hard news, topped off by some jiggle or sizzle — is a familiar one to those who like their news diet accompanied by a side of flash and trash.

Unfortunately for Fox, most Americans seem to like their news straight. The latest numbers from Media Metrix, the company that measures Web audiences, may have contributed to Thursday’s decision by News Corp. to scuttle its News Digital Media division, eliminate more than 200 jobs and transfer production of FoxNews.com and FoxSports.com back to the Fox network.

After all, November, with its breathtakingly close presidential election and daily political and legal handsprings that defied credulity, had to be the most news-heavy month since the Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s impeachment. With almost hourly twists and turns, it was a month tailor-made for breaking news sites. Yet even during November, FoxNews.com couldn’t claw its way out of the digital news basement, remaining far behind industry leaders MSNBC and CNN.com.

“If you looked at the news sites that did well, with a big story that mattered to a lot of people, users flocked to more traditional sources of news,” points out Scott Woelfel, president and editor in chief of CNN.com. “We saw an incredible uptick in traffic, and we seemed to have hung on to a lot of those higher user and usage levels. People saw something that they recognized the value in.”

To be sure, there has been some good journalism coming out of Fox’s online news and sports operations over the years, and I know of several talented journalists who made the leap online and produced solid, often notable work. Those who haven’t received pink slips will now work directly for Fox News Channel and the Fox Sports Television Group. I hope they’ll find success plying their online craft under their new division bosses.

I’m not sure how Fox’s online operation could have overcome the twin stigmas of sensationalism and political bias given off by its parent brand. Fittingly, it was Fox’s election news chief, John Ellis, who talked on the phone with cousins Jeb Bush and George W. Bush, then called Florida for the Texas governor a few hours later, around 2 a.m. EST on election night.

As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon after the election, “Who needs a vast right-wing conspiracy when you’ve got a vast right-wing network?”

That, in short, is the problem that Rupert Murdoch’s online division always faced. It’s hard to take Fox seriously when every time you turn on the TV the talking heads are yelling at each other. It’s hard to respect an online news division when they don’t seem to take themselves seriously.

Call it the Morning After effect. News users might occasionally flirt with FoxNews.com for the latest dish, or for conservative political slants that matched their own views. But after a cleansing shower and a cup of coffee, do readers really want to spend the day curling up with a tabloid news site?

As Woelfel notes, “You have to ask, is the Web big enough to allow those kinds of sites to be commercially viable? It’s hard to get advertising support for something like that because advertisers are flocking to only the top three or four news sites out there.”

Certainly, both traditional journalism and tabloid journalism have their rightful place in cyberspace. Just look at Matt Drudge. But in the end, quality still counts.

For journalists — online or offline — credibility is our life’s blood. When we allow show-business values and tabloid sensationalism to triumph over journalistic values of even-handedness, fairness, credibility and perspective, you might as well pull the plug. Because what’s left isn’t worth catching, on a TV or a PC.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT