Are Americans too dumb for real news?

If we can't count on Time to tell us what we need to be paying attention to, then who can we count on?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

If you've ever been to ZDNet (and you have, since you're reading this), you might have noticed that we have a big, spotlight section on the home page. You might have also noticed a little American flag in the upper left corner.

Aside: rumors that every time I load a ZDNet page, I stand to salute the flag are not entirely true. I do salute, but sometimes I remain sitting.

In any case, have you ever clicked on that flag? If you did, you'd notice that we have international editions. We have an Australian edition, a Asian edition, a Chinese edition, a French edition, a German edition, a Japanese edition, and a U.K. edition.

What's disturbing is that if you go to, say, the U.K. or the Australian editions, you'll notice important stories on the home page, like Cloud consolidation: OK for the customer? and How and when will enterprise apps be Windows 8-ready?.

But if you go to the home page of the American edition of ZDNet, you'll see stories like "Cute Roulette: is it really cute enough?" and "Ten ways to put puppies on your Windows desktop."

Why would ZDNet's editors do this? Do we think you Americans aren't smart enough or sophisticated enough or attentive enough for the real technology news? Are we just so desperate for the traffic that we'll do anything to get you to visit our site? Or did I just make all this up to illustrate a point?

If you checked "Yes" on Question #3, you win a prize. Ooh, let's all hug now.

I made it all up to illustrate a point. We don't spotlight fluff. We spotlight the tech news that's most important and newsworthy. But Time Magazine, apparently, has a different idea about Americans.

But, seriously, I am trying to illustrate a disturbing point, one that originally came to my attention through a recent article in Slate. In it, the article pointed out a disturbing trend, where Time Magazine has serious cover stories for their European, Asian, and South Pacific editions, but only fluffy cover stories for the American edition.

Images courtesy Time Magazine and Slate.

For example, in this week's issue of Time Magazine (if you're not American), you're treated to an in-depth discussion about Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and how he's dealing with Europe's financial crisis. On the other hand, if you're an American, you're treated to a story about "Animal Friendships: BFFs are not just for humans anymore". And yes, I know, I want to read that story, too.

Slate's L.V. Anderson goes on to show that this isn't the only time Time has considered Americans too dumb or too disinterested in hard news to sell enough magazines. Back in December, the foreign editions ran a cover story on the unrest in Arab nations, while the American edition ran "Why Anxiety Is Good For You" as its cover story (Does anyone know where I can get a copy of this article? I'm worried I haven't read it.)

Look, I've been a publisher for years, and I know that we need to spotlight what sells. I know, for example, that an article entitled Three ugly, middle-aged men argue about Windows 8 will get far more readers than one entitled "Windows 8 competitive perspective" or some other uninteresting drivel.

But there's a point where you have to draw the line, and I'm not happy with the line Time has drawn. Time's editors and circulation wizards have obviously done the math on this, and so they know that they're not getting as many American readers with the hard stories. They've probably focus-grouped this stuff to death and know we care less about PM Monti than we do about puppies.

The problem is we live in interesting times, and one of the resources we Americans rely on to give us the truth, the hard truth, and nothing but the truth is Time Magazine. If we can't count on Time to tell us what we need to be paying attention to, then who can we count on?

While I'm very disappointed in Time, this also showcases another reason for the rise of Web-based journalism and the precipitous drop in print circulation. If I don't like Time's apparently lack of respect for American minds, I can easily read many other online resources, like Slate, like ZDNet, and like so many other wonderful, deep, well-considered Web sites that bring real, hard news to people who really care.

And I'll read some of that stuff. But first, I need to get my Cute Roulette fix. Ooh, look at those cheetah cubs!

See also: 20 cats as fonts

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