The cover story of last week’s The New York Times Magazine featured this headline: “My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.”
Catchy, for sure. But it’s a headline you’d expect to see in a tabloid, not The New York Times. Was this an anomaly?
I don’t think so. The language of the most respected brands of mainstream media has been changing in recent years. It’s getting bolder. More sensationalistic. And more prone to exaggeration.
It happened first in the various supplemental services that so many newspapers and magazines offer online. In that arena, they have to compete with the alternative press for attention. And often the best way to get that attention is by posting sensational headlines.
Once they entered the competition, it was only a matter of time before their standards would adjust from traditional notions of propriety to “whatever works.”
I’m very aware of this pressure. As a consultant to the alternative media (which makes its money by subscription and not advertising), I’ve seen countless test results proving that provocative subjects and alarming and tantalizing headlines will beat the hell out of sober issues and sensible headlines every day of the week.
As a copywriter I know once said in an interview about his own sensationalistic copy: “At one point, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing was slightly manipulative. And yet it was working so well and making me so much money. I had a choice: Change the copy or change my ethics. I decided to change my ethics.”
Is this a bad thing?
I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the idea of having standards – for the sake of the writers as well as the readers. It has a civilizing effect. On the other hand, once the advantages of monopoly disappear and a publisher must compete in an open market, it’s going to be very difficult to stay profitable unless you are able to use the same techniques and strategies as your competition.
In the long run, I don’t think it will do much harm. Writers will become more pragmatic in choosing the topics they want to write about. (They will move to what’s hot, topical, and controversial.) At the same time, they will get more skillful at writing headlines. As a result, readers will become accustomed to hyperbole and sensationalism and thus become less responsive to it. When that happens, perhaps there will be a growing market for serious topics and sober headlines.