Last week's first sign of the apocalypse: The New York Times' decision to tease, on the front page of its business section, a tiny story inside on a minor gaffe made by gossip blog TMZ, which recently ran a video of Facebook.com founder Mark Zuckerberg dining out with a lady friend. In the entry, TMZ initially implied Zuckerberg is cheating on his girlfriend; further down it fessed up that the lady in the video is Zuckerberg's girlfriend. "Most TMZ commenters overlooked the mistake in favor of knocking the site for paying any attention at all," the Times informed.
This is news? Business news? In what is supposed to be America's paper of record?
Apparently so. The item was flagged prominently on the business section's front page, next to a small still of the Zuckerberg video and a description of TMZ as a chronicler of "everything Britney." As in Spears. As in now we get it. The Times, it appears, has officially embraced the business news bait and switch.
While the paper may not write about Britney per se, it's more than happy to use her tragedy-tinged celebrity (not to mention her Google-ability) to bring some flash (and Internet eyeballs) to its business section. It's as if the section's front page is saying, "Hey, nonbusinessperson, look inside. We write about gossip! We know who Britney is! We make fun of TMZ!" Yes, in a 300-word brief buried on page six.
While the Gray Lady is just dipping its toe into these murky waters, another business news outlet is diving in head first. Which brings us to the week's second sign of the apocalypse: the launch of MainStreet.com from TheStreet.com Inc. A weird blend of warmed-over gossip and celebrity news mixed with generic tips on personal finance, this site is all about bait and switch. One entry spends three paragraphs catching readers up on Britney's legal woes before launching into the importance of keeping financial records organized; another piece that purports to be on Uno, the beagle who won last week's Westminster dog show, morphs into a sermon on the virtues of pet health insurance.
On MainStreet.com, celebrities are the sugar that helps the medicine of personal finance go down. The resume of its managing editor, Caroline Waxler, is the very embodiment of the site's ethos. After spending a few years at Forbes, she wrote a book, "Stocking up on Sin," about-what else?-investing in vice stocks. She was also a writer for VH1's "Best Week Ever," in which comedians opine on pop culture events almost as quickly as they happen.
The blogosphere has already done a pretty good job commenting on the general inanity of MainStreet.com. But to us the site seems like the logical next step for a financial news biz that is determined to become, well, less financial. First, Portfolio launched with its promise of being a business pub for people who don't like business; next, Fox Business News went live, vowing to be more Main Street than Wall Street. That's resulted in stories like "The Britney Economy" in Portfolio's February issue, and segments on Fox Business like "The Biz of Sex," which featured a Penthouse model talking about her attempt to break into mainstream acting. "I don't do pornos; it's only the centerfolds," the model reassures.
OK, so that's where she draws her line. But where does the financial news biz draw its? Teasing a pseudo-Britney item on your front page or using Uno for a piece on pet insurance may seem like a far cry from "pornos," but is it? How long before more financial media outlets embrace the tabloid strategy of their professed nemesis, Rupert Murdoch, and simply splash photos of busty women on their pages?
Look, we don't mean to suggest that financial journalism has to be dry and dense to be worthwhile. But approaching business and its kissing cousin, personal finance, as a form of infotainment doesn't seem like the right approach, even if Main Street-whatever that is-is your target audience. Lots of people have retirement savings and paychecks riding on a stock market they barely understand. Others are dealing with mortgages they can't afford. Now is not the time to treat finance as just another pop culture story. Titillating though they might be, Britney's sad travails offer no object lessons on how to manage your money.