Saturday, August 25, 2007

Requiem for a "Newspaper"

About a year and a half ago, while perusing publications at a supermarket, I encountered one in particular item that left me stunned. I briefly questioned whether I had entered a time warp. It was a baseball magazine, which consisted almost solely of statistics. Lacking articles or analysis, it was nothing more than tables upon tables of stats. When I was a kid, I would have spent hours with this-- and as a kid I checked out the behemoth Baseball Encyclopedia from the public library on many occasions. However, both the magazine and that great tome have been rendered completely obsolete by websites such as this.

While I don't regret my curiosity toward the existence of the baseball magazine, it is only in hindsight that I realize how strange it was that the same supermarket most likely carried the Weekly World News. Not that anyone was buying it. Circulation of the WWN in 2006 was 83,000. [citation]. That is absurdly low for a paper that had as many distribution points as it did, which is why it is discontinuing publication.

Yet it wasn't always like that. During the late 1980s circulation was over 1.2 million. What caused a 93% reduction in sales?

Some claim that new ownership didn't "get" the publication, that they tried too hard for humor. A Washington Post article posited that real life has gotten so absurd that it is hard for the publication to keep up.

My argument is that the paper has never been all that entertaining. I should immediately qualify my statement by pointing out that I've never read it. The headlines and the front page photos are mildly amusing, but what could the articles really add that was worth paying for? The Onion manages to avoid the same pratfalls on four levels. One, their writers know (for the most part) how to avoid overkill. They'll include clever headlines without the need to write full length articles. Two, their AV section is good. Three, they appeal to a sophisticated demographic by intentionally writing satire. They are subtle where the WWN bludgeons. Fourth, and far and away most importantly, they don't charge money (in most markets).

So if the WWN has always been a poor return of the entertainment dollar, how did their circulation ever top one million? The high number confirm what everyone who grew up in the 1980s suspects deep down inside. It was a terrible era for entertainment. Granted three to four TV channels were more than people of the 19th Century ever had, but the 1980s were a weird bubble between eras. In the rear view mirror was a time when people didn't have a lot of free time and disposable income, but when they did they were more imaginative about how to spend it. In the future was digital cable and the world wide web. In between was a time with eight bit video game systems, original TV movies of the week that got high ratings, and pre-CGI movies. It was just enough to suck people into a vortex of ennui. In such an era, The Weekly World News could only flourish. What is remarkable isn't that it is going out of business, but that it lasted so long into the new era. And a glance around the world wide web will indicate that though the WWN is now dead, the content that it packaged as entertainment lives on. The difference is that now it is free. And that thought gives one pause, and makes one wonder if the 80s weren't so bad after all. After all, you could get baseball stats at the supermarket.


Post a Comment

<< Home