Condi vs. Britney: Will hard or soft news win?

There is no one news culture in the United States. In a nation of 300 million, there are many. For some, the arrival of Barry Bonds at spring training is big news, while others still are focused on the changing lineup of the children's band, The Wiggles.

But look closer and you might see a larger trend lurking among all those different news agendas – a quieter bifurcation of media audiences leading in two different directions, hard and soft.

The trend can be seen most clearly in recent circulation statements of some of the nation's largest magazines. Yes, magazines are just one form of media, but because of their built-in segmentation (from news to sports to crocheting), they offer a more nuanced glimpse into Americans' interests.

What do the numbers show?

On one hand, more serious and expensive news magazines are steadily gaining readers. Since December of 2004, The Economist, a magazine light on photos and heavy on text and analysis has seen its circulation rise from 485,000 to 640,000. In that same time, The New Yorker, the long-story weekly that has become increasingly "newsy," has seen its circulation jump from 995,000 to 1.067 million. Not bad in an era when print is supposedly dying.

But those numbers pale when compared with the growth of celebrity news magazines, which have seen their audiences swell. The Star, which became a glossy magazine in 2004, has seen its numbers go from 1.3 million to 1.54 million since 2004. In Touch has grown from 1 million to 1.26 million in that time. And OK! reported that its circulation went from 450,000 to 757,000 in just nine months last year.

Those figures are even more impressive when you consider that In Touch and OK! are both relatively new magazines – launched in 2002 and 2005 respectively.

Are those numbers just a sign of a sizzling magazine industry? No. The two main newsweeklies are struggling. Since 2004, Newsweek has lost a few thousand readers. Time, meanwhile, announced last year that it was cutting 750,000 of its circulation loose because the discounts it needed to hold on to those readers weren't worth it.

If all those numbers reflect larger news audience tendencies, then there is good and bad in all this.

On the plus side, some Americans are choosing a more substantive news diet than they once did. They are paying more and are getting news that is broader and deeper than the news they used to get.

But the shrinking of that news audience in the middle, the mass news audience, is troubling. In the current media culture, there is a trend toward specialization that may leave some outlets in a position where they have to choose which way to go. Increasingly, "mass news audiences" seem more like phantoms than real entities, and those outlets that are trying to reach them, such as Time, Newsweek, and the cable news networks, are struggling.

And if the mainstream news media edge toward one of these paths of coverage – serious or light – the easiest and cheapest path is the one that leads to the late Anna Nicole Smith's trial or Britney Spears's rehab trips.

Serious news gathering, reporting, and writing is not easy. It takes correspondents and bureaus, time and money. Covering celebrity news, frankly, is easier. What's more, rather than make complicated and significant issues interesting, one need only piggyback on the built-in fame of the celebrity.

Consider last week's tabloid hubbubs – the death of a former C-list celebrity in Ms. Smith and the rehab hokey-pokey of a pop star who hasn't been on the pop charts in years, Ms. Spears. These stories are not difficult to cover.

All you needed to cover the Smith trial was a camera in the Fort Lauderdale courtroom where a judge was deciding who would get possession of her body.

For Spears, a simple shot of her recently buzzed coif would do, along with, of course, concert footage of her gyrating. Throw in a few celebrity and judicial experts, and voilà, instant coverage.

Where a bifurcating news audience leads isn't yet clear, but consider a poll from the Pew Center for the People and Press in 2006 that showed that viewers of MSNBC and Fox News (both of which reveled in Smith coverage last week) could only answer one out of three basic knowledge questions on the news, including: Who is the US secretary of State? and Who is the president of Russia?

It's enough to make one wonder if the ending point is a nation made up of a small number of people knowledgeable enough to cast an informed vote and a big chunk who can recite the celebrity police blotter entries by rote.

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni

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