Keeping It Short and Sweet

The New York Times is no ice cream sundae.



Photograph by Ifeelstock | Dreamstime.com

I signed up for the online New York Times in April after the newspaper started charging for what used to be free.


More power and more money to them, I say. May the Times prosper, and may the aggregators of celebrity poop, reality television “news,” and other people’s work struggle or perish.

I pay $15 every four weeks, or $195 a year if I stay with it. I could read the Times online for free, but only at the rate of 20 stories per month. I probably read five to ten stories and columns a day, seven days a week, so I’d be way over the limit.

As a fan and freelancer for the Times, I’m glad to pay them. Value for value. This makes three newspapers that I pay for. I get home delivery of The Commercial Appeal seven days a week for $15 a month, and unlimited Internet access is free. I also get the print edition of The Wall Street Journal at the office for $119.88 a year, including unlimited Internet access.

Aggregators are taking over the business of print journalism as I knew it, turning it into a stew of gossip, hard news, consumer features, stock quotes, and just plain junk that can be accessed for free. This results in little if any profit for the end producer, or “content producer” as journalists are now known.

I get my Internet service through BellSouth and Yahoo. In addition to my email, the Yahoo home page today has these stories: “United Jet’s Blind Landing” (from ABC News), “Best Car Deals for April” (U.S. News), “Why Boomers Fear Retirement (AP), and “Sex Won’t Kill You” (New York Times). The most prominent piece of site-produced content was “Dancing with the Stars Heats Up” (Yahoo TV).

These stories are designed to be as irresistible as chocolate-covered caramels in a jar on your desk. The name of the game, of course, is attracting “clicks” or “unique page views” that can be used to tout readership and sell advertising. The key words — the caramels, if you will — are “sex,” “best deals,” “boomers,” and “blind landing.”

My colleagues and I got an odd lesson in power-clicking a few weeks ago. A year ago, Memphis Flyer staff reporter Bianca Phillips wrote a short item on her blog about an ice cream social at a local church. She illustrated it with a picture of an ice cream sundae.

Nine months later, along came something called “International Ice Cream Sundae Day.” Because the Flyer’s photo was prominently indexed on Google, more than 130,000 people around the world who Googled “ice cream sundae” images clicked on the June 2010 blurb in the Flyer. That is about 129,000 more views than most Flyer stories get. As my colleague Bruce VanWyngarden wrote, “Ice Cream Sundae Equals ‘Free Porn.’”

Sad but true. The clever, pun-filled headlines that have been a staple of The Wall Street Journal and good magazines are actually counterproductive on the Internet. We are learning to be literal, brief, specific, and — when possible — as tempting as ice cream.

Unfortunately, most local and regional reporting is not that tasty. It’s hard to dress up a story about school consolidation, city budgets, the demolition of a historic building in Midtown, a business scandal, or a housing bust in Germantown or Cordova. And only rarely will such stories attract national attention.

So we adapt. If you have not done so already, I hope you will check out our revamped website, www.memphismagazine.com. It’s thoughtfully organized and well designed. And it’s free. But if you renew a print subscription and also click on the website like it’s an ice cream sundae, it will help us stay in business a while longer.

Reader Comments:
Jul 6, 2011 06:53 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Very good article!

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