Guest Papers: At the Supermarket

Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Normally attracting only a cursory glance at the check-out counter, this newscaster-featuring edition of the National Examiner piqued my curiosity

 In the United States, there are over 36,000 supermarkets (defined as having $2+ million in annual sales) and many more other retail and convenience outlets that share one common trait:  newspaper racks.  They could be of a modern metal variety or crafted out of wood.  They might hold several editions from all around the local area or just display the town's daily or weekly offering for purchase.  They can be free standing all by themselves or integrated into the structure of the cash register and optical scanner at  the check-out counter.  However your favorite location is configured/stocked, I will openly predict that there is at least one (or perhaps both) of the papers I am featuring in this post available to you to thumb through--and perhaps even purchase.

As I mentioned in my blog's profile area, I grew up in a newspaper home.  My father used to bring home at least one every day and that exposure satiated my curiosity about the world around me in the days before the 24/7 cable news networks and the Internet.  What I have not mentioned before is that I had other relatives who also liked to read but their choices of materials to peruse through was a little on the sensational side.  My grandmother always had stacks of the "supermarket tabloids" sitting around her home that she would scour through religiously for the latest offbeat news and celebrity gossip.  I cannot recall any specific editions over those years but I must assume that I had to have seen a few highlighting stories about extraterrestrials, angel sightings, and the on-going antics of "Bat Boy".  Some of these publications have gotten into legal troubles for publishing erroneous and/or libelous information about celebrities (one such case, involving television variety star Carol Burnett back in the 1970s, resulted in The National Enquirer paying an undisclosed amount for a story they ran about her and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Washington, DC restaurant) and sharing real and/or made-up information about the famous (and infamous) is this manner of journalism's 'hook' to attract and retain their steadily aging target demographic.

 Some of the offerings seen in America's "supermarket tabloids" every week

Another way to get people to buy is to bring up a celebrity who is going through the final stages of their life.  It could be health-related or it might deal with their finances but actors Burt Reynolds, Mary Tyler Moore and musician Chuck Berry have all gotten the "brave last days" treatment in these publications.  I normally just roll my eyes when I spy them near the conveyor belt at the Kroger check-out counter but I saw one this weekend that attracted my attention.  It wasn't just one person this time--they had four "newsmen" on the cover (Hugh Downs, Dan Rather, Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw) and two others (Morley Safer and Sam Donaldson) joining them in the two-page centerfold spread titled "Beloved TV Newsmen Sad Last Days".  Through my many years of watching network newscasts and newsmagazine shows, I'm very familiar with all of these men and I was curious about their current conditions so I bought a copy to read at home.

The featured article that disappointed me on a journalistic (and personal) level

In addition to their advancing ages and deteriorating health, the author of the piece (listed as Eva Fellows but not sure if its a pen name or not--there is a LinkedIn account with that name listing them as an "Independent Publishing Professional" in the West Palm Beach, Florida area) also focused on their current post-network activities which, for Rather and Donaldson, delved into gossipy and lurid territory.  According to Fellows, Rather is still bitter over his faulty 60 Minutes newsmagazine report on George W. Bush's Air National Guard record from back in 2004, believes that former anchor Katie Couric "dumbed the news down" and "tarted it up", and had to mention that his current on-air home (HDNet, which recently changed to AXS TV) also offers programming that is not normally associated with hard-hitting journalism (Bikini Barbershop and Girls Gone Wild Presents).  Back in 2004, a family cattle ranch operated by Donaldson in rural New Mexico had a triple homicide committed by one of the victim's 14-year old son while the former ABC newsman was on vacation.  When telling this to the reader, Fellows alludes that he somehow "survived" that attack even though he was nowhere near the property when those acts were committed.  Her final dose of snarkiness was leveled at Safer, the 41-year veteran and senior member of the 60 Minutes team.

The 78-year old 60 Minutes icon should quit, some say, before he suffers the humiliation of being axed at the still popular news magazine.

In addition to bringing up an extraneous--and catty--quip from about it being "painful" for one of their reporters to watch him sitting next to 62-year old and 25-year old women at a 2011 fashion show, she got his age wrong (Safer turns 81 on November 8th).  Saying that "it may be time for CBS to make those [retirement] plans for him", the show still lists him as a correspondent for their 46th season that debuted Sunday night.  I'm guessing that fact-checking might not be a budgeting concern for this publication which, in addition to this hack piece, also featured stories about celebrities who have yet to be buried and the "tragedy" of former All in the Family actress Sally Struthers' recent DUI arrest in Maine last month.  Interspersed with those items were articles on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, actress Shirley MacLaine's "wacky world", and a 10-story treehouse in Crossville, Tennessee inspired by a "vision from God."

While it is difficult to see just how much I paid for this publication ($3.79 is printed in fine type just above the barcode on the front cover), I can see how it is subsidized by advertisements that target those who might not be as "savvy" about prices or quality (or even taste).  For example, a full-page ad warns the reader about the possibility of losing data on their computers ("don't risk losing your precious memories forever) and offers them a "revolutionary new product" to protect themselves against it.  The item is a USB flash drive, labeled as a "Photo Bank", that advertises itself at greatly inflated prices.  For the 4 gigabyte version, they 'slashed' the price $30 down to a "special introductory offer" of $19.95 (with $5.99 added for shipping and handling if buying only one--Florida residents also pay state sales tax); however, you can go to any electronics outlet and find one for one-third that price.  Also prevalent is a variety of contests that offer cash prizes for finding hidden figures or differences between side-by-side drawings or photographs in exchange for the contestant's personal information (disclaimers printed on the entry forms clearly authorize communications for the sponsor's or a third-party's marketing purposes).

"Supermarket tabloid" publications like the National Examiner, the National Enquirer, The Globe and others in this country (and around the world) are the descendents of what has commonly referred to as "yellow journalism", a flavor of that venerable profession that caters to the sensational side of the news in order to sell papers.  Created in the late 19th century during the circulation battles between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, these publications cater to "junk food news" (celebrity gossip, crime, fads and trends) consumers that requires little processing by the readers and only small investments by the publication producers.  While not the prevalent form of newspaper journalism practiced in this country, there are several who frequently borrow several of these promotional traits to highlight their publications and to increase sales and two of the most well-known are in the same media market (New York City).  The New York Daily News and The New York Post have a reputation for "over-the-top" headlines and front pages of their tabloid offerings (as seen below when news of the killing of Osama bin Laden was announced).

Front pages of The New York Daily News and The New York Post announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 (graphics courtesy of The Newseum)

This brand of journalism has crept into nearly all of the country's newspapers, with daily gossip columns, horoscopes, comic and entertainment pages bundled into their own separate section to give readers a mental 'respite' from the rest of the day's other news.  Weekly nationally syndicated inserts (Parade and USA Weekend) have become staples for highlighting celebrities, politicians and causes to an audience who would be highly embarrassed if seen purchasing the ones positioned next to the supermarket cash registers.  Unfortunately, with the dire financial dilemmas most publishers find themselves in today, the trend will be towards providing more of this kind of information rather than less.  It's already been seen in the television industry, with hours of less-expensive "infotainment" and reality-based programming filling nightly broadcast channel schedules that used to be dominated by "heftier" dramatic offerings (which are now flourishing on basic and premium cable outlets).  So while I cannot lay all of society's problems at the feet of the producers of weekly "gossip rags" nor denigrate their employees' right to make a living, I can call out their publications for what they really are--"money traps" that prey on unsuspecting or vulnerable elderly people to maximize the profits of their companies and the ones who advertise in them.  Yes, they got my $3.79 this time, but don't count on any future purchases from me anytime soon (if ever).

USA Today's recent weekend edition

On a lighter note, the other paper I picked up is one that should be familiar to anyone who does any traveling in the United States.  USA Today, the nation's second most popular daily paper (just behind The Wall Street Journal), is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.  Founded in 1982, they try to be all things to every reader with somewhat successful results.  With no local constituency to woo, the paper is free to address stories from all corners of the country (at least one from every state is featured in its "State By State" round-up in the news (also known as "Section A") area.  Business, sports and life also get their own sections (B, C, and D, respectively) to provide coverage on those specific subjects (E is reserved for bonus information warranting its own separate coverage). 

USA Today's 30th anniversary edition...and the debut of "circles" as the paper's new malleable logo (graphic courtesy of Wikipedia)

Over it's short history, I have read dozens of editions of this newspaper (and probably have a few tucked away for safekeeping about events of significant importance) but their recent logo change motivated me to buying last weekend's edition.  On September 13th, USA Today announced that it was replacing its familiar blue box with white lettering and a striped globe for--a circle!  But just not any circle, mind you.  This one can change colors (blue for News, green for Money, red for Sports and purple for Life) and can be adorned with a variety of designs or items to focus attention on the lead story of each of the four (or more) sections.  If you look at the photo of my purchased edition, you'll notice a plain blue circle next to the masthead.  If you then look at the headline story, you will see that it is about water costs in the United States.  To make the connection, you must know that water, normally a clear liquid, scatters and absorbs white light to give it a blue appearance when seen in large concentrations (lakes, oceans) so that blue circle represents a drop of H2O in its liquid state falling from that faucet.

 This is how the other "circles" were represented for last weekend's edition

As I said above, each section has its own circle to festoon and they are shown above.  For the Money section (B), it represents a universally recognized symbol for hospitals (a story about healthcare facilities was the lede).  For Life (D), it serves as background for the reverse letter E, part of the logo of Showtime's breakout drama series Homeland that started its second season on Sunday night.  Sports had two sections: its regular area (C) featured a crown atop the circle and augmented a story about Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera and his pursuit of a batting "triple crown", a very rare honor for a player who leads his league in home runs, runs batted in, and batting average (this feat has only been achieved 16 times in baseball history, the last time being in 1967 by Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski).  The second Sports section (E) highlighted the opening of the Barclays Center and the return of professional sports to Brooklyn (the circle features a road map between the New Jersey Meadowlands and the New York City borough.  Their last team, now the Los Angeles Dodgers, moved to California in 1957 and broke the hearts of many Brooklyn baseball fans.  The former New Jersey Nets will end that 55-year drought when they play their first season at their new home on November 1st).

I think that the circle is a masterstroke of innovation and design that the paper sorely needed.  Often referred to as "McNews" in editorials deriding the paper's overall commercialization, summary style stories, and cartoonish "USA Snapshots" graphics that represent data in a more-easily digestible manner for hurried business travelers away from the office, this new element has created "buzz" and plenty of free advertising to kick off its fourth decade of publication.  It even grabbed the attention of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who targeted the paper's recent change with his unique brand of humor on a recent show:

To playfully rebut Colbert satirical challenge, the graphics department at USA Today came up with several versions of his on-air suggestions that he might enjoy:

While USA Today is a trusted travel companion, its lack of a "home team" precludes me from subscribing to it when I can get many of its stories from my local papers or through online sources.  However, for special occasions, I will be sure to add a copy to my voluminous stack of periodicals out in the garage.

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