The shockwave from the watermelon that BuzzFeed playfully detonated online last week has shaken New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. Using the blast as the news peg for a piece detailing the journalism industry’s obsession with page views, he asked how traditional journalists can possibly compete economically with the BuzzFeed stunt, which drew 10 million pages views in a couple of days, when the best they have to offer is straight stuff about war, voting rights, immigration, ISIL brutality, the Federal Election Commission and the rest? Must all news outlets create their own page view-attracting watermelon trick to hook readers?
It’s not even clear that exploding watermelons can, by themselves, save journalism. As Rutenberg notes, citing reporting in the Financial Times, BuzzFeed appears to be having trouble meeting its revenue goals. Still, the triumph of the watermelon has him rattled. “All I’m asking is that we be careful not to lose too many core values on our way to the future,” Rutenberg writes near column’s end.
But the “core values” of the New York Times (and other top newspapers) to which Rutenberg refers have long included generous doses of the fun, the frivolous, the entertaining, the diverting and the exploding—just like BuzzFeed. He need only open his newspaper or survey its last century of output through the TimesMachine, the paper’s online archive, to confirm this assertion.
Or he can consult a brilliant academic paper by Matthew C. Ehrlich, “Taking Animal News Seriously: Cat Tales in the New York Times.” The paper documents a Timesian obsession to all things feline that makes BuzzFeed’s devotion to kitty videos seem restrained. With the exception of the 1950s and the 1960s—which another academic called a period of “high modernism” in which the Times dealt its readers mostly “accurate, ‘unbiased’ information about public affairs”—the paper has doted on cats over the past century. The paper has honored cats that fly bombing runs (1941) and cats staging heroic long marches to reunite with their owners (2013). Cats have been written up as villains, “Pet Angora Cat Attacks Woman in Auto; Clings with Teeth Until Choked to Death,” Page One, (1921); as victims, “Want to Captivate New Yorkers? Try the (Latest) Trapped-Cat Story” (2006); and as a woman’s best friend, “the especial pet of elderly spinsters, who adopt the animals as companions in loneliness” (1927).
Cats, the Times has reported, hunt rats in delis (2002), reside in offices, clubs, hotels, theater, police stations and even the offices of the Times (1925). In 1930, the paper found the truce between one cat and one bird newsworthy. In 1936, a fight between a soda machine and a black and white cat known as “The Battler,” earned its column inches in the Times (Battler lost in a TKO). One week in early 2014, the most frequently emailed story was titled “What Your Cat Is Thinking.”
“That the 21st century New York Times devotes space to cat stories might appear silly, if not pathetic,” Ehrlich writes. But it’s neither, he explains. We understand our world, in part, through the art of the story, and cats do us great service as proxies in our struggle to frame the world. Plus they’re cute. Their stories provide reporters, editors and readers relief from life’s toil, which dominates the rest of the paper. Plus they’re cute. Cats reconnect us, however tangentially, to the animal world. Plus they’re cute.
The Times need not apologize to anybody for writing about cats, or for featuring the online bursting of watermelons, should they decide to chase that beat. As a variety of writers have noted over the years, most recently Michael Wolff in USA Today, the modern Times exists as two newspapers. There’s the self-serious Times with its breaking stories about earthquakes, budget battles, the economy, and plagues, its book review section and editorial/op-ed section. And then there’s the lighter Times, populated with fashion advice, first-person confessionals, food coverage, home and design, puzzles, travel, celebrity profiles, and other fluff, including an endless series of bogus trend stories.
The lighter Times was largely the 1970s creation of Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal who, admiring the lifestyle coverage success at New York Magazine, the Washington Post Style section and the Los Angeles Times, added consumer-and-advertiser friendly sections to his paper. “The Times subsequently paid frequent attention to goods and services aimed at well-to-do, city-dwelling cat owners,” Ehrlich writes, “a story trend that has continued into the 21st century.” The paper invested in stories about Manhattan boutiques selling high-end apparel for cats (1987) and “cheery cat condos” at a Westchester veterinary clinic (2001). Ehrlich continues: “Since 2010, concurrent with cats’ rise on the Internet, the Times has devoted an average of 45 stories a year to felines.”
Rutenberg might be right to worry that the whole journalism game might crumble as outlets reposition themselves as entertainment venues in pursuit of watermelon-sized numbers. But a century of Times coverage of cats shows us that newspapers—like drama and sermons—can be entertaining and edifying at the same time, with fun and the seriousness co-existing in the same package. Let me suggest that the proliferation of cat stories (or watermelon stories) creates in the minds of sufficient numbers of readers the appetite for something more substantial to go with the cat story. If that was not the case, the editors New York Times would have repositioned the publication a broadsheet version of Cat Fancy decades ago.
Herbert Bayard Swope, who edited the New York World until 1929, saw no incompatibility in pairing the editorially worthy and the editorially popular in the same package. “What I try to do in my paper is to give the public part of what it wants and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not,” Swope said.
Saturation New York Times cat coverage continues: Just last month, the paper profiled a Brooklyn cat in a piece titled “This is Petro’s Block.” Send cat news via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts cough up fur balls. My Twitter feed has all of its shots. My RSS feed is still dead.
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