A 'Net Resurrection of 'Tabloid' Journalism

By: Steve Outing One of the neat things about the Internet is that it affords would-be publishers of the opportunity to create new forms of journalism. This isn't always a wonderful thing; take the example of now-famous cyber-muckraker Matt Drudge, whose brash, risk-taking style and frequent inaccuracies are seen by many as an embarrassment -- even a threat -- to the profession of journalism.

But the Internet also serves as a platform for more benign forms of experiments in journalism. Take, for example, a new outfit based out of San Francisco called Tabloid News Services and its Tabloid Web site. Its founders are embarked on a campaign to bring back -- via the publishing economies of the Internet -- the style of journalism of the pre-World War II era, when newspapers tried to outdo each other with brash headlines, bold reporting and personality. The latter, many journalism watchers will point out, is missing from many corporate-owned newspapers.

Tabloid (the Web site) is the vision of Charles Hornberger and Ken Layne, two journalists who met in 1992 while working in Eastern Europe and remained friends over the years. When they found themselves both living in San Francisco, they hooked up and with their own funds started Tabloid, based on a concept that Layne had developed several years ago of a daily "tabloid"-like publication covering world events with a good dose of "personality."

'Weird crew'

Tabloid was developed last April, and to date remains a modest project run out of an office in Layne's Haight Street Victorian house in San Francisco. Hornberger and Layne are co-editors and owners, and for now the sole full-time employees. The balance of the operation includes "a weird crew of basically unpaid freelancers from around the globe," according to Hornberger.

The venture is still in the struggling start-up phase, and those unpaid freelancers -- many are journalists who Layne and Hornberger have run across during their travels and personal friends -- are contributing with promises of decent pay coming their way when and if Tabloid becomes a financial success. The duo is hunting for investors, but hasn't attracted any yet.

Hornberger says most of his writers are traditional journalists with "day jobs" who write for Tabloid on the side and who enjoy the opportunity to write "in our loud, brash style." One Tabloid correspondent who lives in Hawaii also writes for such varied paying clients as bridal magazines and the Christian Science Monitor.

Each day, the site publishes a lead piece and several shorter briefs. Typically, the news for the site is rewritten from other sources. The editors like to present news from around the world, not just the U.S., and many stories and columns are rewritten from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) wire service. (Tabloid apparently is the first Internet-only subscriber to the AFP wire.) The editors also comb the Web looking for news tidbits that can be rewritten in the Tabloid style.

Hornberger and Layne do much of the rewriting and editing, and the scattered correspondents sometimes are asked to re-report and re-write stories that originated from another source. Hornberger envisions more original reporting as the service grows and has the money to pay writers. There probably won't be a staff of paid writers, but rather a network of freelancers who know that Tabloid wants to buy their work.

Tabloid's founders are trying to carve out a new niche of journalism. Hornberger says that despite the name, Tabloid is not about "National Enquirer" style journalism; "it's an interesting attempt to reclaim the term 'tabloid' from the celebrity chasers and miracle diet crowd," he says. He acknowledges the "negative" connotations that the word "tabloid" has, but says that's also useful in attracting interest from a news-hungry public.

Tabloid style topics

Recent topics on the site have (predictably) included the White House scandal, which Tabloid has dubbed "Monicagate." (In a letter to the editor, one astute observer suggested an even better name: "Fornigate.") Bill Clinton has been bashed plenty in the traditional press, but Tabloid's writers step it up even further. (Nevertheless, Hornberger professes that the site has no particular political agenda; players on all sides are fair game for Tabloid writers' barbs.)

Another recent story played up in Tabloid was about the Irish Republican Army killing an ice cream shop owner who was shutting down his business for the day. Tabloid's headline screamed, "Thugs Gun Down the Ice Cream Man!" The story itself was factual and took the event seriously.

Another example: "Gorilla Massacre!" -- about a group of gorillas (not guerrillas) who got caught in the middle of a military confrontation in the jungles of Zaire and were slaughtered by soldiers.

The idea, of course, is to attract readers to become regulars of the site in big enough numbers to attract serious advertising -- which is the primary source of revenue for Tabloid. The founders have been using the ad network FlyCast to place advertising on Tabloid, but those typically are at bargain-basement rates. Hornberger says the site is "a couple hundred thousand" page views a month away from the "magic" million mark -- which will make them attractive to an agency like DoubleClick, and result in serious ad revenues to support growth, he believes.

(The owners also have longer range plans to develop other journalistic Internet properties, such as a travel journalism Web site. Hornberger and Layne also produce the news segment of an Internet radio show that's Webcast and broadcast on some AM stations in the U.S.)

Hornberger would like to take away some readers of traditional media as Tabloid grows, and as the Internet grows more into mass-market proportions. But he also thinks that Tabloid's style -- which in some ways harks back to the "old days" when newspapers like the Herald-Examiner in Los Angeles reveled in sensational headlines as the means to outdo the competition -- will attract news consumers who have abandoned newspapers because they are too boring and TV news because it's so shallow and crime- and celebrity-ridden. Hornberger aims to do in-your-face journalism that entertaining but isn't "dumbed down."

Is there space for this vision of a different kind of journalism? On the Internet, there's space for everyone. Tabloid, Matt Drudge, ABC, the New York Times. ... The next few years of Internet-induced innovation in the journalism world will be fascinating to watch.

Contact: Charles Hornberger, hornberger@tabloid.net


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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