A kidnapper-rapist sicko has me thinking lately about the literal value of news.
Yeah, I'm talking about the shocking story of Phillip Garrido, the California nutcase who allegedly kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard 18 years ago, apparently brainwashed her, kept her secreted away as his sex slave in his backyard shantytown, impregnated her and had her raise two daughters with no access to formal education or medical care.
You just know that somebody, somewhere, is rather cynically calculating the worth of the story. A lot of somebodies, actually. Book proposals about the case are being priced out; tabloid publishers are trying to guesstimate the circulation bump the slowly unfolding saga might or might not yield; dollar values are being attached to the inevitable first Dugard interview (watch for some "respectable" news organization that supposedly doesn't pay for stories to end up quasi-paying for it by compensating Dugard for, say, access to photographs or other materials); and TV newsmagazine producers are considering the potential ratings boost.
But what's the value of the Dugard story to you? I mean to you personally?
I'm asking because, of course, we've just come off of a summer filled with endless stories about publishing types -- from Rupert Murdoch to Steve Brill -- suddenly deciding that we're all going to have to start paying for more of the news. The era of newspapers giving away on the web what they charge for in print is supposedly coming to an end.
It's a mind trip, this repricing-the-news moment, because no one -- least of all newspeople -- knows what it's really worth. And that's because a lot of news -- possibly most news -- has little real value to the average consumer. Entertainment value sure (in the Garrido case, along the lines of a particularly chilling horror movie), but tangible value?
The Garrido story has essentially zero value in my life. In fact, I'm frustrated by how compelling it is, how much time I've already spent reading about the story (mostly on the web), because there's absolutely nothing to be gained from it. (I might actually be willing to pay to never have to hear Garrido's name again.) Garrido is obviously something of a sui generis monster, so there are no object lessons here, it's not a cautionary tale, and there are likely few adjustments to be made to, say, the California parole system (Garrido was on parole for an old crime). We simply flock to this story, almost compulsively, like the proverbial car accident. Not because it's informative or edifying, but because, well, we can't look away. It's tragedy porn.
It's an extreme case, sure, but how much of the mainstream news that you consume -- the stuff that newspapers and TV deem worth extensive coverage -- is similarly lurid and devoid of real substance? A lot of celebrity coverage, for instance, has become tragedy porn, too, from the life and death of Michael Jackson to the travails of Lindsay Lohan. And speaking of porn, how many news organizations -- particularly newspapers that tried to compete with lifestyle glossies during the boom years -- got dangerously addicted to offering consumer porn, real-estate porn, etc., much of which was generally useless?
I'm making a simplistic argument here -- sensationalistically paying attention to the most sensational elements of the news ecosystem at the expense of the clearly valuable investigative reporting and geopolitical reporting and reporting about the local and national body politic to which the best news organizations still, thankfully, devote considerable resources. Then again, the proportion of infotainment and faux news has surely been rising since the late Don "60 Minutes" Hewitt cracked the news-as-entertainment (and news-as-network-cash-machine) formula four decades ago. As much as principled, high-minded journalists speak of the necessity of the Fourth Estate and the importance of an informed citizenry, the truth is that much of the news put forth by media conglomerates neither informs nor enlightens. It merely titillates. (Even the news about health-care reform, as dutifully propagated by major media organizations, has become largely useless. It's about the squabbling, not the substance.)
It's a deep irony that the we're-going-to-charge-for-news movement is being led, in part, by Murdoch, because he, of course, has done perhaps the most to pornify the news in the past few decades -- both conceptually (in the sense that one definition of pornographic is "lurid and sensational") and literally (his famous topless Page Three girls at The Sun in Britain).
Unfortunately for Murdoch, porn -- actual porn -- isn't the business it used to be. As the Los Angeles Times reported last month, name-brand porn star Savannah Stern, who was pulling in nearly $150,000 annually just two years ago (and drove a Mercedes-Benz), expects to make maybe $50,000 this year (and has switched to driving a used Chevy Trailblazer), as porn studios produce less original content and pay less per sex scene, as DVD sales plummet and subscription and micropayment porn sites struggle. Why? "We always said that once the internet took off, we'd be OK," an executive at one porn conglomerate told the Times, but "it never crossed our minds that we'd be competing with people who just give it away for free" -- referring to DIY porn sites such as YouPorn.
The thing to remember about the porn industry is that it has always led the way when it comes to promoting the adoption of new technologies -- from VHS to cable to camcorders to DVDs to the internet itself.
But, hey, if Rupert Murdoch can reverse the tide and get people to pay top dollar for news porn, well, more power to him.
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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco