The 24-Hour News Spirograph: Lady Gaga Eyes, New Media’s Indentured Servants

spirograph07192010.jpgThe “24-hour news cycle” is by now an old, rusty saw in media criticism, but a new phenomenon has lately emerged in online news: Stories that had already lived out their time in the sun are getting resurrected for new treatment weeks after their legs first run out.

The new picture of a news story’s life cycle looks less like a tight loop that closes after 24 hours. Instead, it enters a period of dormancy only to return weeks later. The resulting chart of a story’s attention trajectory looks more like a Spirograph — a large circular pattern constructed out of smaller loops.

This past weekend, two stories we swear we’ve seen before reared their heads: Search-engine optimization is changing the way newspaper headlines work; and online journalists face crushing demands in the name of generating pageview-grabbing microscoops. “News” that media nerds might find stale has cycled back around to make headlines at the nation’s top media outlets.

For instance: A Sunday column by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten details the impact of search trends on news headlines. The title of the piece, “Gene Weingarten column mentions Lady Gaga,” is a kind of meta-joke; the column isn’t about Lady Gaga at all, and is therefore a transparent search-engine ploy in an article about transparent search-engine ploys. As much fun as Weingarten may have had coming up with the wisecrack, he’s sad about the decline of the classic newspaper headline and what’s essentially been the elimination of the position of copy editor:

In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Moliere, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.


[O]n the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.

But wait, didn’t we see that story and that joke from The New York Times‘ David Carr two months ago? Sure, Carr uses Taylor Momsen instead of Lady Gaga, but the structure and intent of the headline — and the commentary — are essentially identical.

That’s not the only example of accelerated retro-journalism revival.

A story in today’s The New York Times focuses on the demands placed on young online journalists. The piece centers on Politico, an outlet often maligned for its tendency to embrace rapid-fire microscoops in an effort to lead a hyper-rapid news cycle. Says the Times:

[I]n a media environment crowded with virtual content farms where no detail is too small to report as long as it was reported there first, Politico stands out for its frenetic pace or, in the euphemism preferred by its editors, “high metabolism.”

In late April, the very same New York Times took an in-depth look at Politico’s Mike Allen, offering a similar appraisal:

[Politico] wants to “win” every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.

Don’t august publications like the Post and the Times know that these stories are not, strictly speaking, new?

Last week, the evolution of the recursive news cycle sparked debate between two New York blogs that contribute extensively to the tightening of deadlines, search-engine games and general frenetic nature of contemporary news media. Village Voice blogger Rosie Gray called Gawker out for continually hammering clothing company American Apparel for its hiring practices and sleazy advertisements. (A cynical reader might wonder whether or not the Voice‘s contrarian headline, “In Defense of American Apparel,” was itself a ploy for attention.) In response, Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote:

[W]elcome to the flawed world of humanity. Everybody knows Haiti’s in terrible shape. Everybody knows California is overdue for a killer earthquake. Everybody knows drunk driving is dangerous. That’s why Haiti has now been fixed up, and everyone’s left California for the safety of Kansas, and nobody’s driven drunk since 1983. What’s that you say? The fact that people know something doesn’t necessarily mean they do anything about it? You mean that it’s sometimes necessary to HAMMER A POINT REPEATEDLY into our obstinate, all-too-human skulls? Oh.

Which brings us back to the functional properties of the 24-hour news spirograph. As regards Lady Gaga and the SEO-headline joke (which, by the way, was only marginally clever the first time around), continued interest in the story, at least on Weingarten’s part, can be justified on two bases: 1) the headline continues to undergo a major transformation that meaningfully impacts the way news is distributed; 2) it has prompted other outlets to shed light on other stories related to Gaga — and those stories do constitute news.

Whether or not Weingarten’s column had anything particularly new to offer, the Columbia Journalism Review has already used it as a jumpoff point for its investigation into the shaky legs supporting two trend pieces on Lady Gaga’s potential role in influencing teenage fans to buy dangerous cosmetic contact lenses. It’s a deft piece of media criticism that may get a little SEO juice thanks to Weingarten’s column.

Similarly, the plight of young journalists at Politico and elsewhere bears repeated analysis — in the Times and other places — simply because the trend continues, and the implications are readily apparent. The debate has already reignited; Business Insider’s Henry Blodget today penned a column critiquing the Times‘ look at Politico and suggesting that journalists who can’t keep up with the ramped-up pace should step up their game.

It’s a conversation that’s worth having, because the stakes are high. Should young journalists burn out at a steady or even increasing rate in coming years, publications (online or print) lose the chance to develop the kind of institutional memory that helps contextualize the news — news that continues to hit readers at an incredible rate.

Anyway, we have to go. We no doubt have some press releases to frantically paraphrase in hopes of getting them published before the competition does. If we and our readers are lucky, we’ll go back in a few minutes and offer a little context — supplied by the most search-engine-optimized stories covering the same topic.