Bread and circuses for everyone. Yahoo! recreates a tabloid newspaper on its home page.

Do you ever get the idea that Internet news media are more trivial than the traditional newspaper, more given to stories that are not hard news, but instead focused on selling products, titillating sensibilities or gossiping?

In fact, it’s not true.  As frivolous as much in the news section of Yahoo! or Google can be, the differences from the daily newspaper are minimal.  It’s all bread and circuses nowadays, with a few hard news stories thrown in for balance.

For example, let’s consider one part of the home page of Yahoo!: the rotating box which includes a fairly large photo and a headline tease, sometimes a line of text of the story that appears when you click on the photo.  Below this photo caption are four little photos with very short headlines which represent other photo-stories you can put into the box by clicking on the link.

Yahoo! changes the story and photo in this rotating of the homepage with some frequency and lets the user select not just among the four stories represented by the four little photos, but by a total of 16-32 stories (always a multiple of four).  Yahoo lets us know there are more than the four stories showing with a little arrow to the right of the array.  My impression is that Yahoo! changes a few of the 24 stories in the rotating box every hour or two, and often will use a story several times in a week’s time.

I took a look at what stories were in the box at Noon EDST (eastern daylight savings time) and found that the balance of topics reflected what one would find in a daily newspaper:

  • Hard news (real news, topical): 5 stories
  • Soft news/Features: 1 story
  • Sports: 4 stories
  • Celebrity/Entertainment: 6 stories
  • Food: 2 stories
  • Products/Consumerism: 3 stories
  • Business/Finance: 3 stories 

To test my belief that a newspaper would have similar mix of stories, I looked at yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Keep in mind that the Post-Gazette has no business news on Monday and, like many local newspapers, has a special food section on Wednesdays.  Also note that I haven’t included obituaries, comics or editorials, and I’ve counted round-up columns that might include four or five items as one story:

  • Hard news: 13 stories
  • Soft news/Features: 5 stories
  • Sports: 16 stories
  • Celebrity/Entertainment: 6 stories
  • Food: 0
  • Products/Consumerism: 1 stories
  • Business/Finance: 0

The similarities between this rotating box and a daily newspaper are more striking than the differences, and many of the differences, e.g., no stories about food in the newspaper, can be explained away by the fact that a local newspaper typically brands its days with special sections and therefore has a greater day-to-day variety than Yahoo! in the mix of stories outside of hard news.  Hard news represents about 25% of the Yahoo! mix of stories and 31% of the Post-Gazette’s mix.  I wonder how many readers thought hard news would represent a greater percentage of what the news media presents us.

Yahoo!’s approach to the stories in the rotating box is very much of the “gee whiz” sensationalism of a tabloid newspaper (and not the Post-Gazette).  Often the headline is a big tease with no substance.  Often this section’s way into a hard news story is through the oddest or most offbeat angle to the story, always looking for the feature angle that journalists usually try to develop when a hard news story is old and they want to keep it in the news.  Take a look at these examples:

  • The Pope’s legal immunity (from charges related to child abuse)
  • GOP Chairman speaks out (about the strip club scandal)
  • Billionaires who live cheaply
  • Actor leaving White House job
  • What “Twilight” hasn’t touched
  • LeBron upset over comments (not a game)
  • Yankee star’s off homerun greeting (not the game)

The bundle of media Yahoo! presents in the rotating box exists as its own media outlet, and as such, is a kind of daily hybrid of People Magazine and a local (tabloid) newspaper without local news.  Along with Google News and the Yahoo! News page, this ever-changing rotating box has probably become as important for establishing the terms and conditions of the marketplace of ideas as network television news and the big four daily newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today).

One more observation: Below (or sometimes above) this rotating box on the Yahoo! homepage are links to news stories, plus a link to Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Yahoo! Finance, etc.  These links take the user to collections of stories, including most of the stories in the rotating photo box, in varying themed combinations.  In a sense, Yahoo! presents multiple bundles of media in various parts of the Yahoo! website, whereas each printed newspaper offers one bundle of media only.

Preview of Coming Attractions: Sometime soon I’ll analyze the content of local and national TV news and compare it to the Internet and daily newspapers.

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