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Freak Show

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Bad Tart with Plastic surgery.jpgDesperate times call for desperate measures. I hear that an employee at philly.com played around with executives at the Inquirer/Daily News to avoid getting a pink slip during the recent round of layoffs.

It's just a rumor and I don't want to mention any names, but I wanted to post it, even though it may or may not be true. At this blog, we like to throw in a little blind item once in a while to keep things interesting.

Since it involves sex it will get a lot of hits and, let's be honest, hits are the name of the game in the internet world. The more hits you get, the more advertising you attract, even if a big slice of your audience includes teenaged boys searching the web for masturbatory fantasies.

I must admit that my idea of throwing in these "blind items" is not original.  I don't have that level of creativity. I stole it from Marnie Hall, host of The Gossip video on philly.com.

The buxom host (I almost wrote she puts the tits into titillation, but that would be in bad taste. On second thought, bad taste gets hits, too) recently led a segment with a "blind item" about a certain prominent politician who is currently employing his girlfriend and paying her big bucks. Since the guy wants to run for higher office, he's going to have to come clean and answer questions someone will undoubtedly pose about the relationship at some point in time, Hall says. 

Who is the pol? Marnie doesn't say. Who is the girl? No word on that either.  How about pictures?  Nope.  Just clip art silhouettes.  So, with one blind item, Hall makes every elected official in the region suspect of sleeping with the help. 

And so it goes at philly.com, the web-based cousin of the Inquirer and Daily News. Philly.com is an anomaly among the newspaper-related web sites in America in that it doesn't much like news.

Oh, it dutifully cuts and pastes the content of the papers onto its web page, though rarely featuring them on its rotating centerpiece pictures of top stories. That coveted real estate is reserved for items that get clicked into. For instance, the ones up there at 7 a.m. Sunday included: pictures of the Flyers, Chase Utley, a new restaurant, and the Eagles cheerleaders tryouts.

That last item linked to a philly.com exclusive, a 219-picture photo essay of women trying out for the squad. A study in bare mid-drifts and bad hair, the woman looked like over-the-hill Delilah dancers, which, for the benefit of you 15-year-olds in Mumbai, is a gentleman's club, which is -- again for you Mumbian teens -- a strip club. It's where women dance naked, except for a g-string which covers their....oh, never mind. Just Vimeo up an episode of the Soprano's with the Badda Bing Club. [Update April 6: The hits keep coming.  The Eagles essay now has 382 pixs.]

Philly.com is a classic hit-driven site. It wants to get millions of UV's (webspeak for unique visitors -- audience members) and it knows it cannot get the mass it wants featuring stories with just news. News is dull. Sports is better. Gossip is better still. Showing a woman with big breasts is good. Doing photo essays titled "Naked Bike Ride" also works (though, I am sorry to tell you Bangalore teens, there is hardly any nudity in the 126 pictures in this photo essay. The glimpses of nakedness shown is only among bikers who are really old and wrinkled. Talk about bait and switch.)

To put it another way, philly.com stoops to conquer. It can't go all the way down, if you'll forgive the expression, because it is tied to the two news organizations that provide much of its material.

It must serve its masters, whose principal purpose is to produce news. It must also get big hits. In the process of trying to do both, it becomes an odd hybrid: a lousy news site and a lousy T&A/Stupid Pet Tricks site.

It's like the teenage girl who spends hours in front of the mirror with her make-up kit trying to do vamp, but ends up doing tramp. A teenage slut -- now there's a hit maker.

In its effort to produce its own content, the site can be sometimes just stupid, sometimes offensive and often both. An example of stupid is the recent 111-picture photo essay on "The Erin Express," a pub crawl held on St. Patrick's Day. Talk about race shame.

As a proud American, I will defend to the death the right of 24-year-olds to get shitfaced on St. Paddy's Day. But do I have to watch them do it, bedecked in cheesy green hats and necklaces, mugging for the camera with glazed eyes? I think not. Then again, it can get hits from those who want to vicariously experience people making asses of themselves, without the vomiting.

An aside about the concept of a photo essay. A photo essay is generally a selection of photographs strung together to create a album that tells a story. It is edited -- someone picks the best photos and culls the ones that were not the best.

A photo essay on philly.com isn't that. There's no editing. It's a file dump from a digital camera onto the site. It's the photographic equivalent of diarrhea.

The reigning champion of photo essays is the 294-picture celebration of the Wing Bowl, which also includes seven sidebar photo essays/videos on the same event. Right now, there's a 15-year-old kid in Cairo asking himself: What is a Wing Bowl? That is hard to explain. Let's just call it a shlocky orgiastic celebration that fetishizes gluttony -- and leave it at that. Oh, and it features porn stars. So, check it out.

The stuff that is stupid and offensive are items like Hall's "blind items" on The Gossip or the pieces on local institutions that look, smell and taste like press releases. The worst offender is a video feature called Down the Shore.

Down the Shore debuted during the Brian Tierney era and gave birth to a joke in the Newsroom that went like this:

Question: Name the combination of numbers and letters that will get you a job on philly.com?

Answer: 36D.

The original version featured two babacious babes, dressed in bikinis, with an opening shot of them sitting on a beach.

Babe1: Wow! Today's we're in Avalon and it has a wonderful beach!

Babe2: It's, like, really pretty!

Cut to Shore Bar. Babe1 and Babe2 sip drinks that feature tiny Chinese umbrellas.

Babe1: We're are at Jack's, which is real near the beach!

Babe2: It's, like, a great place to meet cool people!

Babe1: And they have a Happy Hour with really cool drinks that are real cheap!

Cut to beach: Girls romp in the waves, jiggle their breasts, and wave.

Babe1: So, that's our trip to Avalon!

Babe2: A really cool place! Really!

And so on and so forth as they sashayed their way through Cape May, Wildwood. Margate, Ocean City, Atlantic City, Surf City and into infinity. I am not making this up.

The Down the Shore girls have jiggled off into the sunset, I am sorry to say, replaced by hunky guy named Justin and Tanya, who looks like an Eagles cheerleader alumna. Their mission in life, it seems, is to get comped at numerous shore location and produce gushing reports about same.

I won't go into details -- you can see their, um, report from the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City by clicking here. Suffice to say, they are a marketing director's wet dream. At times, I swear, it sounds as if they are reading directly from the news release.

Newspapers have pretty strict rules against taking free food, trips, tickets, etc., so I am sure Justin and Tanya and crew paid for those overnights at the Chelsea and the Borgata, etc. But, what if they did not? I just emailed Marnie Hall and suggested she look into it. It may make for a juicy item on The Gossip.

The problem with doing dumb stuff is that you draw dumb people.

I don't know the average IQ of the folks who dip into philly.com, but to judge from the comments section on the site I'm guessing low 80's. To be fair, not all of those who comment are morons; some are psychopaths, others are chronic misogynists and a large number of them are haters. Whenever they read the word "black" or "African American" their hands shake, they foam at the mouth and they take to the keyboard to spew. At times, the comments section on philly.com resembles a virtual Klan meeting.

Anyone who is sane, reasonable or mildly intelligent runs the risk of being verbally raped by commenting on the site. The trolls rule, man. Not a good thing. It scares away good people and just leaves the droolers.

Why do I pick on philly.com? So what if it is a freak show, the web equivalent of one of those aging stars with way too much plastic surgery?

Because it's about the journalism, stupid.

The Inquirer and Daily News are brands built on good journalism -- and good journalistic practices. Their value lies in their truthfulness and reliability.

Philly.com doesn't share those values. It doesn't work under the same rules. Therefore, it runs the risk of pulling the papers down to its level. That cheapens the brand.

Another weak point. It's "go for the hits" strategy is falling out of favor with online marketers and advertisers. What good does it do for, say, a local car dealer, to have half a site's audience come from out of town or consist of web hummingbirds who flit onto the site for three seconds and then depart. Loyal, local readers. -- the ones who return again and again and spend real time on the site -- are more valued today. Philly.com drives those folks away.

My concern is that as the papers (once again) change hands and as the operations of philly.com, the Daily News and Inquirer merge the impulse will be to have the suspect journalistic practices and silly themes seep from online into the papers.

You say that could never happen?

I say: Desperate times call for desperate measures.

-- Tom Ferrick

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