The Hype About Harry


A century ago Pulitzer, then in his Yellow Journalism days, was keen on them. Find out what people are talking about, he told his reporters, and write about it, regardless of news value. Then write about it some more.


You “ride” a buzz story until its “legs” give out. For journalism the rules are different. If a story plays on the front page one day, there needs to be some very compelling new developments to play it again. And again. There’s space for only a very few front page stories each day. And the world, not to mention California and the Bay Area, is a very happening place.


Harry Potter is just the latest example. Within the last few months the Merc, and to some extent the Chronicle, have found other stories to serve as sales vehicles.


Forty-niner quarterback Steve Young made perhaps his final front page headlines when he was “traded,” “not traded,” “retired” “unretired” and finally officially retired (but stay tuned!). The story camped on the newsworthiest page of the paper for days. As the Mercury’s Leigh Weimers put it:  “I hope we never have to announce the start of World War III. There's no headline type big enough, by comparison.”


Before that it was a feeding frenzy on the Sharks’ playoff shot. Before that, the astonishing new Giants stadium. Before that Tiger Woods and diagrams of various holes at Pebble Beach.


What’s the harm in keeping the front page “buzzing?”


Maybe nothing. But it displaces information we have a much greater need to know from the one place everyone who buys the paper looks first. For some harried folks, the front page is all they see most days.


The front page is a bully pulpit. It’s a showcase. It’s where the editors traditionally put the news we need to know. It’s a place where reporters, photographers and graphic artists show readers that they’re skillful enough to make the important interesting. Replacing the important with the merely interesting seems like an insult to the staff.


It also says something about what editors think of you and me, the readers.   


Perhaps it takes frequent buzz stories to sell enough newspapers to finance the top-flight journalism the Mercury also provides. Maybe the South Bay isn’t ready for a more serious approach to news.


Or maybe it’s why so many of us also subscribe to the New York Times and can’t get enough of National Public Radio.



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