Swiss gigolo admits to extortion"; "Pupils need to sleep more"; "Coffee taster's tongue is worth 10 million pounds sterling." This is not a list of headlines from some fringe sensationalist British newspaper but the three most popular articles viewed this week in one of the finest quality media outlets in the world, the BBC's Internet site.
Israeli sites, too, provide a similar picture. Stories about Adi Neuman and drugs or "Big Brother" star Yossi Bublil interest the public more than the coalition negotiations or the economic crisis.
The list of the most-read articles published on the home page of most major Internet sites makes it possible to get a peek at the public's taste. It is important to judge this taste against the backdrop of the print press' decreasing influence in the West and the move to online news. A large number of sites have recently considered whether quality newspapers will survive the crisis. Newspapers that used to be iconic are disappearing. The Los Angeles Times has gone bankrupt and the San Francisco Chronicle is fighting for its life, while The New York Times has had to use its premises as collateral.
At first glance, the data seems impressive. Some 830,000 Americans have been subscribers to The New York Times for at least the past two years, while 20 million unique users read the newspaper on the Internet every month. Though the newspaper reaches more readers during this Internet era, most of its income still comes from the print edition and therefore is diminishing.
Only a few newspapers have succeeded in getting their readers accustomed to paying for their content. And when the content is provided free, the meager profit from the electronic version comes from singular surfers clicking on banners or searching text ads. This barely covers the salaries of the site's editors.
If the future of serious journalism is to be found on the Web, right now this future looks gloomy. A quick glance at the list of articles viewed on the Internet for The New York Times, The Guardian or Le Monde reveals that readers prefer pictures of a panda at the San Francisco zoo or low-calorie recipes to daily reports on the war in Iraq.
Here, too, an item about Bar Refaeli's new publicity campaign gets tens of thousands of hits and hundreds of comments, while reports about the Economic Arrangements Law interest only a few hundred surfers.
The conclusion is clear. In the age of computers, the classic news formula - new, important, and interesting - is dropping in value. The important is losing pride of place to the interesting. If you take into account that an article about a panda born in an Australian zoo is cheaper and quicker to produce (just translate an item from the news agencies, choose a picture of a panda and put them on the Web), the future of the news business on the Web is clear.
The blogosphere is full of proposals about how to emerge from this crisis, from obliging Internet suppliers to transfer a fixed sum to the content sites; going over to a paid electronic newspaper; and even an accord among the big sites to make them accessible only to paying subscribers.
But perhaps the Internet does provide an opportunity for quality journalism.
A large part of surfing takes place during work hours. And when someone peeks over your shoulder, it is preferable that you are found surfing The New York Times site.
After all, you will find the same item about Madonna's new boyfriend there, too. Only, in return, you might click on some banner.
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