Though ‘fluff’ sometimes generates lots of clicks, it isn’t the only news fit to publish

09/02/2013 12:34 AM

09/02/2013 12:34 AM

Last week, Miley Cyrus was big news.

No wait — make that “big news.” The 20-year-old’s performance on the Aug. 25 MTV Music Awards show certainly was the topic that night and the next morning. Her wildly sexual dancing and flesh-colored rubber bikini dominated the morning news shows, news websites and especially Twitter and Facebook from the second she hit the stage.

KansasCity.com posted an item from a staff writer about the former teen star’s appearance Sunday night, and it briefly ran in the top spot the next morning. Web editors bumped it down lower on the page before 9 a.m.

Upon reflection, the performance was obviously an orchestrated ploy by the former Disney star to refashion herself as an adult artist. And virtually every media source fighting for clicks in the bloody oceans of online breaking news helped shower the attention she was so clearly seeking upon her.

I doubt anyone would argue seriously that it was a meaningful news item.

Thus the real dilemma for general-interest journalism circa 2013: Intentionally ignore a story that everyone is talking about nonetheless, and you get skewered by the scores of online critics who pick apart everything they see in the professional media. “Out of touch!” they howl. “This is why you’re dying!”

But if you follow along and publish the fluff in the fleetingly temporal Internet news cycle, you instead draw barbs from the other side. “You call this news?!?!” they demand. “This is why you’re dying!”

The grand irony is that Cyrus was by far the most popular topic on KansasCity.com that day, and continued to generate traffic through the week.

It’s a gross mischaracterization of the site to paint it as nothing but gossip and trash, though. KansasCity.com carries most news content that runs in the print edition, and much more. It also hosts literally thousands of wire stories throughout the week on a wide variety of weighty topics. It focuses on a mixture of hard news, features, sports and other topics, just like print.

Now, that “Most Read” list — that’s a different matter. It’s generated dynamically by what users are clicking on, and it is obviously influenced heavily by stories that “go viral” online. Those items about sex, sentimentality, sports and quirky quick-hits get shared, skimmed and quickly forgotten.

Those big spikes of interest drive traffic to websites, even though they’re empty calories. This is something that’s worried journalists and serious readers ever since the advent of the web — the news equivalent of the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” children’s books.

But without delving too deeply into it, those bursts of page views actually have quite a minor effect on the website’s bottom line. Generating viral hits isn’t the be-all and end-all for The Star’s Web editors.

All news organizations, The Star and KansasCity.com included, come in for heavy criticism whether they do or they don’t run with the pack. I am with readers who encourage The Star not to follow that pack off a cliff.

Just don’t equate the “Most Read” list with the whole site. There is plenty of real news, and you don’t have to look far to find it. And its ever-shifting content is more than a little like Midwest weather: If you don’t like it now, just wait around a few minutes.

We all hope the business model can find a way to sustain itself robustly in the future on a diet balancing the cotton candy with broccoli.

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