Competing for Eyeballs: An Alternative to Shock Tactics

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.


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Lurid (adjective).- Lurid (LOOR-id) means shocking, causing horror or revulsion; glaringly vivid or sensational. As used by Edgar Allan Poe in The Pit and the Pendulum: “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.”

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“Flight of the Conchords” (Netflix)

On Wednesday, I posted my mini-review of the HBO docudrama series “Chernobyl.” After watching an hour of the deeply distressing first episode, I needed a half-hour of fun – and I got it with an old episode of “Flight of the Conchords.”

If you haven’t seen it, “Flight of the Conchords” is a quirky New Zealand series starring comedian/musicians Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. Based on a BBC radio show, it is a fictionalized account of McKenzie and Clement’s efforts to achieve success as a band in New York City. The humor is both self-effacing and satirical. Each episode is punctuated with clever-funny songs of their own composition.

I absolutely love this series. But K – and I suspect many others – do/did not. Here’s a test: Clement and McKenzie bill themselves as “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand.” If you don’t like that, you probably won’t like it.

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This Is Why I Can’t Stop Teaching and Writing

 An email from JW:

I am a 24-year-old entrepreneur…

Thanks for all of your writing! I am a huge fan of Ready Fire Aim, several of your books, your essays from Palm Beach Research, and your blog. [They] have helped me develop a business that is entering “stage 3” (as described in Ready Fire Aim)….

 I see myself at an important phase in my life where I am trying… to focus on the right things….

Between wealth creation, charity, your appreciation of the finer things (Living Rich), your family values, and plenty of other reasons, I consider you a fantastic role model….

Thank you for the massive impact on my life you have already made. Excited to see where the next few decades go!

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About half of the PragerU material is standard Republican fare… not particularly novel and very debatable. But some of what they do is thought-provoking, regardless of your political orientation.

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