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Pole dancing the news

Pole_dance-modalidade-de-dança-com-barraI confess to occasionally reading "The Drudge Report."

This morning's edition featured a headline in the finest tabloid traditions: "Traffic signs in New Zealand destroyed by pole-dancing prostitutes..." 

Drudge linked to an item in the Telegraph of London, which curiously hedged a bit by casting the story in the  passive voice.

In the paper's original story, "More than 40 poles have been bent, buckled or broken in the past 18 months in one area of south Auckland, New Zealand, it is claimed." 

The "claim" was attributed to a local official who alleged that prostitutes use the street signs "as part of their soliciting equipment" and often snap them. "Some of the prostitutes are big, strong people," she said.


True, false, or exaggerated, for my money, Drudge's headline is right up there with the classic New York Post headline: "Headless body in topless bar."

That headline inspired a movie, a German rock album, and a book on homicides in strip clubs (725 cases as of the first printing). Not to mention all the papers it sold.

The perpetrator -- of the afore-mentioned decapitation, not the headline -- was denied parole earlier this year. The editor who actually came up with the headline has never been identified, though many have claimed credit.

Now, the pole-bending-prostitute story was not the lead item on Drudge. And it may have already slipped off the site's home page by the time you read this. But I think it tells us something about news on the web. And it's not a lesson to be drawn exclusively from right-leaning web sites.

This morning's left-leaning Huffington Post home page featured the headline "Circus tiger urinates on wealthy patrons." The actual story, in which the tiger "pees on wealthy patrons," was based on reports from the New York Daily News and Novosti-Kazakhstan, where the "pee-formance," as Huff termed it, actually occured.

The Huff Post "breaking news" story of events now four days old featured a video, a Google map of the town where the "pee-culiar" event occured, and a blogger's first-hand description of tiger urine  as "very savory, like yeast and salt and an added mix of strong herbs simmering in rotten meat broth." 

TV news used to follow the adage "if it bleeds it leads" because producers knew that Neilsen ratings would soon follow, as would -- like lemmings -- advertisers. Web site producers, who don't have to wait for Neilsen,  simply follow clicks in real time. 

Drudge and Huff Post are an agglomeration of tabloid headlines, designed to incite clicks. The headlines that get the most clicks move up on the home page. The laggards drop off. 

The world's Daily Newses, Novosti-Kazakhstans, London Telegrams, and legions of other dying newspapers complain that they are not being compensated for their content, whether it is sliced and diced (as in the circus tiger "story") or simply hijacked (as in the New Zealand pole-bending story).

They have a legitimate gripe. But the real losers are all the people who look to the likes of Huff Post and Drudge for the filtering and aggregation of their news. 

According to Pew Research, half the top ten "news sites" are tied to so-called legacy news organizations, such as the New York Times, CNN, or Fox. The other half are online-only outfits, such as Huff Post and Drudge.

The question is whose business model -- curate for clicks or report for news -- will prevail.



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