The end of tabloid papers and the new quest for media respectability

As New York City’s new mayor prepared to take office late last year, a local tabloid decided to show him who really ran the town. In a series of outrageous covers, the New York Post humiliated one of the mayor’s longtime aides with racy photos, and headlines like “Give her the heave-ho, de Blasio!”

In the end, the Post prevailed (after a nasty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” cover and stories early this month about toe-sucking) and the embattled aide quietly left the mayor’s team. The ousting was a clear victory for the Post, yet it also felt like a swan song. It was a reminder of how the Post and other tabloids have for years browbeat local politicians to shape the agenda of a city, but are now struggling for relevance amid a cacophony of online media noise.

NY post cover

The decline of papers like the Post represents the end of a print media era defined by high-brow broadsheets and low-brow tabloids. Today, the idea of what constitutes “respectable” media is in flux as the online heirs to the tabloid tradition produce more quality stories and traditional outlets like the New York Times even look to them for inspiration.

Rupert and Twitter

Tabloids have a reputation for inflicting ruin on their enemies — think of the fictitious City Light in Bonfire of the Vanities or Sir Richard Carlisle and his fearsome newspapers in the popular soap series Downtown Abbey. This power to bully people with front page covers makes them appealing to business moguls like Rupert Murdoch, who bought the New York Post in 1976, and now keeps it running despite millions in losses every year

“They [tabloids] crusade and when you disagree, it can be scary,” BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith told me in an interview last year, adding tabloids’ main purpose has been to act as “effective vehicles for owners’ commercial interest.”

The power of tabloids has waned rapidly in recent years, however, and even more so than newspapers in general. According to media analyst, Ken Doctor, tabloids have been especially hard hit because they are generally sold as newsstand copies and not through subscription.

“That’s made them particularly vulnerable to digital disruption in two ways: 1) single copy buying, of newspapers and magazines, has been hit hard by the plenty of 24/7 digital news competition; 2) in the age of All-Access, it’s much tougher to fashion a print/digital “buy” for a newsstand-bought tab,” said Doctor in an email.

He added that as the tabloids declined, their populist positions have been taken up by online outlets like BuzzFeed, Mail Online, the Huffington Post and others.

Smith, who is a former tabloid reporter himself, said that he sees BuzzFeed as coming “closer to a broadsheet tradition,” but that he agreed that the rise of online news makes the notion of wielding a newspaper cover as a source of power seem antiquated.

“Murdoch can now tweet directly. Why does he need the New York Post editorial page anymore?” Smith said.

Smith’s point is apt in light of the numerous controversies Murdoch has stirred up with his Twitter account, which he uses to opine about everything from economics to integration and, yes, the mayor of New York:

Defining “respectable” when news moves online

Even at the height of their power, tabloids still suffered a stigma as rags no respectable person should read. This attitude persists and, in many circles, broadsheet like the New York Times are a badge of ethical and intellectual superiority over the grubby local tabloid.

In the online world, it’s harder to draw that bifurcated view of high and lowbrow media. Last fall, for instance, the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., repeatedly invoked newer online outlets as possible models for the Times when he spoke on a panel about digital change at the Paley Center for Media in New York.

Sulzberger Jr. referred to BuzzFeed and also to Business Insider, which is best known for tabloid-like viral stories but has also started publishing more in-depth and acclaimed pieces about major business figures. His remarks suggested a greater sense of egalitarianism among news sites than what existed in the broadsheet-versus-tabloid era, though not everyone was buying it.

“You must be desperate,” sneered Sir Martin Sorrell, who heads global advertising giant WPP, in response to a favorable comment by Sulzberger about Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget — even as Blodget sat smiling two feet away. Sorrell also added that the “only person who reads a blog is a blogger’s mother” and praised the business approach of Rupert Murdoch.

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

Sorell’s bias against online media is hardly new, and echoes the dismissive attitude long reserved for newspaper tabloids, but it’s not very logical or constructive. One reason is that, while the Times eschews many of the cheap gimmicks used by Business Insider and other viral sites, it also has at times committed its own form of online ethical transgressions by failing to cite or link to other sources that surface a story (such linking is considered basic etiquette among online publications).

More importantly, though, the notion of purely highbrow and lowbrow news publications just don’t feel very useful in the first place. On one hand, sites like the New York Times, which just launched a major redesign, have been looking to the online newcomers as they develop style, story and advertising strategies. And on the other hand, the online heirs to the tabloid press are starting to produce deeply-researched, well-written stories of the sort that earns Pulitzers — even as they crank out proverbial cat videos.

Finally, both now and at the height of the tabloid era, the respectable publications have never been above frivolous content. As Sulzberger Jr. noted, the Times has long relied on less serious stuff to pull in money and readers even while publishing “All the news that’s fit to print.” As he explained, “Cats are to BuzzFeed what wedding pictures are to the New York Times.”