Grumpy old media critic Jack Shafer has accused online news media of turning their sites into “virtual tabloids by peppering their home pages with the most sordid and bizarre stories that can be culled from the world’s news wires”.

Shafer says website tabloids, such as, and, celebrate and rely on stories that are “explicitly designed to momentarily rouse and titillate the web audience”.

Stories such as “Man arrested after cat finds child porn stash” and “Human tongue accidentally served up in hospital”, he believes, says worlds about what those sites think of us: “Life is a freak show, the web instructs, and we viewers are just another bunch of freaks.”

This is nothing new. Mainstream newspapers have always reserved a spot on the front page for that day’s so-called “colour story” (which is hopefully bizarre, perhaps a little gruesome and maybe even a bit depraved). Way back at the turn of the millennium, I worked for a news website where we created a special section for stories that are bizarre, gruesome and, hopefully, a bit depraved.

As Shafer points out through his brief content analysis, any stories about sex, violence, death or dismemberment are fair game. No website is going to ignore stories about endangered babies, slightly older children imperiled by sex monsters, animals in distress or “sordid stories that can be presented as serials, if not cliffhangers”.

And it’s not just our US cousins who are trawling the depths of depravity and despair. A brief look at South African news sites over the past week reveals news values that are pretty similar:

  • “Tongueless rapist is sentenced”;
  • “‘Wife’s body kept in drum for 23 years'”;
  • “Scanty panty poster causing a stir”; and
  • “Two-timing ‘Don Juan’ in court”.
  • And, in South Africa, we have an especially rich source of truly gruesome crime stories to fuel our morbid fascination and fear. Out of the top stories on the South Africa home page on on Tuesday this week, half were crime-related stories:

  • “Businessman kills brothers”;
  • “Charred body: 3 held”;
  • “Mom shot in heart — for cell”; and
  • “Boy, 10, sees mom’s murder”.
  • What does this say about us?

    All of this is nothing new, of course. Anyone who has tracked stats at a news website knows what its readers want. Two years ago, I came across a posting by a Seattle Times columnist titled “Horse sex story was online hit”. In it, Danny Weastneat laments his newspaper’s list of the year’s top stories on its website. This is a list of what people actually read, rather than what they said they read. The site’s top story was about a man who died from a perforated colon while having sex with a horse. In fact, four more of that year’s 20 most-clicked-on local news stories were about the same horse-sex incident.

    His column pointed me towards a Chilean newspaper, Las Últimas Noticias (The Latest News). This tabloid has been transformed into Chile’s most widely read newspaper by some extraordinarily brave editorial innovations — including basing its editorial decisions on web-traffic stats. If a story doesn’t generate enough clicks, the newspaper drops it and moves on to something hotter. If you don’t speak Spanish, a brief look at the website gives you a good idea of what news its readers are interested in …

    What this brings us back to is the age-old argument of whether it is a media institution’s role to dictate to us what we should be interested in. American TV viewership figures for the last week of January from Nielsen Media Research quoted on puts the audience for the Democratic presidential debate on CNN at 4,9-million viewers and the audience for the Republican presidential debate on MSNBC at 2,6-million. Compare this with the 29,3-million people who tuned into a single episode of American Idol the same week.

    I wonder if Shafer is suggesting that we shouldn’t give our readers what they want simply because then we’re catering to the lowest possible denominator? What is ironic, of course, is the tut-tutting that goes on at political party congresses, around dinner tables and on the letters pages of newspapers themselves about the “poor state” of journalism.

    The next time you feel the need to look down your nose at the “tabloid excesses” of, well, the tabloids, remember your own online habits. Are you logging on to read yet another insightful analysis on the country’s response to Jacob Zuma, a blow-by-blow account of the US presidential campaign, or “Man moans because inflatable doll doesn’t”?


    • Anne has 17 years experience as a journalist, mainly spent working for newspapers in Joburg before she joined the start-up team of Independent Online way back in 1999. She has been hooked to all things digital ever since. Now based in Grahamstown, she works part time as a freelance writer and editor. She is also the fulltime mother to two young children.


    Anne Taylor

    Anne has 17 years experience as a journalist, mainly spent working for newspapers in Joburg before she joined the start-up team of Independent Online way back in 1999. She has been hooked to all things...

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