The news you love to read

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 6:02 p.m.

Perhaps the most overused media cliche of our time is “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I’ve hated it since I first became involved in this crazy business even though more than half of my career was spent covering the bloody aftermath and sorrow of various crimes, crashes and general chaos.

But the phrase, however insulting and undignified, is unfortunately too often true.

My stories often landed on the front page. Not because the writing was spectacular but because the subject matter was.

The key word, of course, is “blood” — and whether literally or figuratively, it does appear that as an audience we are willing to drop what we’re doing to watch someone bleed even if we’re cringing and wincing the whole way through.

When we are through watching or reading we will then make small talk with one another and righteously denounce the media for showing us such things. If there is a TV in the room we may pause our media tirades in order to watch it again or we may slide our newspaper down to the next guy at the table so he can read the story we are complaining about.

Tiger Woods’ blood continued to spill long after he had recovered from the physical wounds he suffered in his November car crash, and as a public we continued to watch and read and comment. One by one the women came forward claiming their time in the spotlight as one of the golfer’s many mistresses.

Everyone knows the magnitude of the story, so why then was I even a little surprised and I guess a bit dismayed when I heard that the three major commercial networks planned to interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to broadcast live Tiger’s scripted apology Friday?

After all, they all went live to broadcast O.J. Simpson’s famous White Bronco chase back in ’94. Heck, NBC interrupted its coverage of Game 5 of the National Basketball Association finals between the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets to air the pursuit.

When Simpson’s not-guilty verdict was announced a year and a half later, an estimated 150 million people were watching live.

My assignment that day was to sit among hundreds of University of Maine students at the Bear’s Den to get their reaction as the verdict was read.

One has to wonder how Tiger’s audience will compare.

I guess the dismay is from having to absolutely accept that Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity and general boorish behavior is real, legitimate, top-of-the- fold, “we interrupt our regular broadcasting …” news.

The cable network CNBC, which I think is generally a business-oriented news network, actually had a digital clock in the corner of its news screen counting down the minutes to the press conference.

Just minutes after his 13½-minute telecast heard round the world had wrapped up, news bloggers were already noting a marked slowdown in the stock market. Apparently all the traders were watching as well.

I will refrain from joining others in trying to determine whether Tiger’s apology was heartfelt or disgusting or whether it was meant more for his wife or his sponsors.

How the heck should I know?

I do wonder why we care so darn much.

Is it true, as some experts say, that we feel better about ourselves when we see others around us fail?

Do we really find some comfort or solace in that?

Having worked in the media for a decade or two I’ve been asked countless times, “Why do you guys cover that?” whether referring to a gruesome accident or murder, or stories of politicians behaving badly.

For most of my time in the media the only way we had to determine whether people were reading a particular story was through word of mouth, occasional reader surveys and perhaps the number of papers sold on any given day.

It was far from an exact science.

Today with the media able to tally instantly the number of “hits” on any given online news stories it is much easier to see what we really do read and what video we watch.

Most online newspapers have a “most-read” story category.

Take a look someday and you will see that most of you are reading and viewing the stories that most of you complain that we are covering.

As much as I hate it, it seems as true as ever: “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s just that today, with the ability to track viewers and readers’ preferences, the media finally have some hard facts and stats on their side when it answers, “Because it’s what you want.”

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