On Thursday, March 12, The San Francisco Chronicle published a front-page article about Harvey Levin, the founder of celebrity news website and TV show TMZ, who recently gave a talk at UC Berkeley’s journalism school.
Why the front-page treatment? Because TMZ, which is known for covering tabloid sensations (Anna Nicole Smith, Rihanna, Britney, et. al.), does not appear to have anything in common with the kind of probing journalism taught at Berkeley’s esteemed J School. Or does it?
Or, more to the point, should it?
As journalism undergoes a seismic self-reinvention, with newspapers shrinking and the blogosphere becoming many people’s primary news source, it’s clearly time to rethink the old models. As the Chronicle’s Heidi Benson reported, Levin issued dire warnings in his talk: “Local news is dying, newspapers are dying,” he said. “I’m here because what we do is the same. I’m not saying you want to cover Britney Spears, because I’m sure you don’t. But you will need to convey information and engage the public in such a way that it will make it a business for you.”
Of course, that’s the age-old challenge: How to keep people engaged, but still deliver important information. And Levin’s Berkeley lecture raises interesting questions. Can entertainment journalism be a viable way to communicate significant stories? Certainly, it seems to work when celebrities lend their names to important causes—Bono and poverty in Africa, Brad Pitt and rebuilding New Orleans. But these cases are more often the exception than the rule.
Ultimately, what we can take away from Levin’s argument is that we need to keep finding creative ways to maintain reader engagement—and if a celebrity angle spikes reader interest, well, why not?