How Tabloids Work


Tabloids cover everything from celebrity scandals to the outrageously bizarre.
Tabloids cover everything from celebrity scandals to the outrageously bizarre.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Even if you've never read a tabloid, the headlines probably grab your attention at the supermar­ket checkout. From celebrity scandals to the truly bizarre, tabloid newspapers seem to cover stories that are outside the realm of serious journalism. Sometimes it seems like the stories are completely made up. And where do they get photographs of two-headed babies and space aliens, anyway?

In a highly regarded newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, the facts in a news story are meticulously checked and confirmed with multiple sources (when everything goes as it should). Editors and writers conform to journalistic standards and work hard to maintain an overall sense of objectivity. Tabloids don't seem to follow any of these rules. So where do they get their stories from?

Sometimes tabloids do make up their stories out of thin air. The notorious sex and gore tabloids of the 1950s and 60s were almost completely fictional, with just enough truth to make the stories seem believable. Even today, some tabloids include "top-of-the-head" stories invented by writers. If a story is about an incredible event that happened in some remote part of the world, or the people quoted in the story are vaguely identified, then it is probably false. This is a last resort for tabloid writers and editors, however -- they usually try to base their stories on a grain of truth.

In this article, we'll find out where tabloids get their stories, how they evolved and what effect the popularity of tabloids has had on newspapers and television shows.

The Tabloid Story

Artist's rendition of what a bigfoot might look like. Bigfoot is a frequent subject of tabloid articles.
Artist's rendition of what a bigfoot might look like. Bigfoot is a frequent subject of tabloid articles.
2008 HowStuffWorks

The key to tabloid story writing is that something doesn't have to be true to print -- someone just has to have said that it was true. Writers can bring in sources and experts to confirm just about anything. They will use leading questions to get a "money quote" from a source, or offer up the quote themselves and use it as long as the source agrees with them. For example, a writer might interview a witness for a story about Bigfoot and ask, "Did the raging beast howl with fury, and did it sound like a demon from hell itself?" If the witness says yes, the story might quote the witness as saying, "Then the raging beast howled with fury. It sounded like a demon from hell itself!"

Writers may also quote "experts" for a story, even if that expert has no credentials or subscribes to fringe beliefs. The president of a local Bigfoot Society might be brought into the story like this: "Jim Smith, Bigfoot expert and noted wilderness guide, estimated that there may be as many as 500 of the unclassified creatures living in the forests of Oregon. He has seen several of them himself."

Good tabloid writers expand upon small news items that appear in the back pages of traditional newspapers. In fact, one of the notable differences between a tabloid newsroom and one at a serious newspaper is that tabloid writers don't do much work outside the office. Once a writer finds a story that can be expanded, he calls family members or authorities involved with the story to get quotes. Using those quotes, the writer can flesh out the story and make it more about the people involved than the events themselves. This is a hallmark of the tabloid writing style.

Tabloid stories are not based on hard facts but rather on what purported witnesses or experts say is true.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Celebrity news is a staple of the tabloids, and sources for this information are everywhere. Each tabloid writer maintains an army of sources, including security guards, hair stylists, personal drivers and even police officers who will call the writer whenever they have new information on a celebrity. These informants are paid various amounts for their information, depending on the quality of the news and which celebrity it involves. Information about a minor TV actor might be worth a few hundred dollars, while a major scoop about Madonna or Britney Spears could be worth thousands.

A large proportion of tabloid celebrity news comes from celebrities themselves, often by way of their publicists. Some stars build a working relationship with a tabloid, offering inside stories in exchange for the free publicity. At other times, the tabloid will accept inside stories while agreeing to avoid running harsh or negative stories about a certain star. The studios even leak information about upcoming movies or the scripts for the new season of a TV show to get publicity for the show.

Next, we'll see how tabloids get away with some of their more questionable content.

Tabloids and the Law

The aliens probably aren't going to sue.
The aliens probably aren't going to sue.
Photo courtesy MorgueFile

The tabloids are not immune to lawsuits, but they aren't sued nearly as often as you might think. What's their secret?

In the no-holds-barred days of the 1950s and 60s, some tabloids realized that they could write pretty much anything about anyone with little fear of legal retribution. In his book "I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby," former National Enquirer editor Bill Sloan wrote that the publishers realized "there are two overwhelming reasons why no celebrity of any stature would stoop to suing a gutter-level publication like the Informer even in clear-cut cases of libel. For one thing, the publicity surrounding this type of suit could prove a thousand times more damaging than the original fabrication. For another, the publisher probably didn't have any money to pay damages anyway."

In the 1980s and 90s, supermarket tabloid circulation reached the tens of millions, and the companies that owned them had billions of dollars in assets. Those two factors obviously no longer applied, and actress Carol Burnett struck the first blow when she sued the National Enquirer in 1981 for printing a story accusing her of public drunkenness. She was initially awarded $1.6 million, but the amount was later reduced on appeal and settled out of court. Singer Aretha Franklin filed a similar suit against Star in 2001. She asked for $50 million after the publication of a story that claimed she had a serious drinking problem that was affecting her performances. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have all successfully sued tabloids as well.

The topic of libel in newspapers is a complicated one -- complicated enough that most major tabloids keep lawyers on retainer to read through each article before it is published. Although some of the stories may seem libelous, tabloid writers and lawyers usually know just how far they can go before they cross the line into libelous territory.

When it comes to the truly outrageous stories in tabloids like the Weekly World News, there is little fear of legal retribution. Stories about UFOs or bizarre cults can neither be proven nor disproven. Even if someone could prove that a story was fake, there isn't really any law against making up fake news stories, as long as real people mentioned in the story haven't been libeled.

In the next section, we'll learn how tabloids began.

Tabloid Origins

The USS Maine enters Havana Harbor
The USS Maine enters Havana Harbor
Courtesy U.S. Navy

The term tabloid originally referred to the size and format of a newspaper. Some publishers started printing a smaller version of the traditional newspaper (or broadsheet) that was easier to read on subway trains -- a tabloid. Since then, the tabloid has come to be known more for its content than its size. The word is so associated with newspapers covering celebrity gossip and scandal that many serious tabloid-sized papers refer to themselves as "compact" instead.

The roots of modern tabloids can be traced directly to the U.S. penny press of the mid-1800s. Prior to the advent of the penny press, most newspapers cost about six cents -- nearly half a day's pay for the working class at the time. These mainstream newspapers catered to businessmen and politicians. In the 1830s, newspapers like the Sun and the Herald in New York began to focus more on human-interest stories and less on politics and business. The style of writing was also different. The penny press didn't lay out the facts of a story with dry detachment. Their stories were written to appeal to the senses and emotions of readers with vivid descriptions, simple sentences and shorter paragraphs.

Soon the popularity of sensational stories began to overshadow any need for relaying actual facts. This was the era of yellow journalism. One of the most infamous yellow journalism publishers was William Randolph Hearst, whose New York Journal (later called the New York Journal-American) published wild exaggerations and false stories to increase circulation. The New York Journal-American and other tabloids prospered for several decades with a mix of celebrity scandal and gory murder stories, but didn't survive the Great Depression. In 1952, a former Hearst-owned paper called the New York Enquirer was purchased by Generoso Pope Jr. for $75,000. Pope immediately changed the paper to tabloid size and took it in a new direction, with content based on people's tendency to stop and gawk at car accidents. "If it was blood that interested people, I'd give it to them," he said in a 1970s Time interview (Sloan, pg. 37). Circulation increased rapidly based on a steady stream of gory crime scene photographs and murder stories.

Rupert Murdoch began selling millions of copies of his News of the World in England by adding celebrity photographs and sex scandals to the typical tabloid fare. Pope's paper followed suit and expanded beyond New York City. It became the National Enquirer.

In the 1960s, the old newsstands where the tabloids had been sold for decades were fading. Once again, Gene Pope was at the head of the trend. The best national market for his newspaper was the large supermarket chains, but gross-out photos weren't likely to get any shelf space there. Pope cleaned up the Enquirer, focusing on celebrities, the paranormal, and self-help articles. Once again, his formula was a success, and other tabloids changed their format as well.

In the next section, we'll learn about today's tabloids.

Tabloids Today

Some mainstream magazines have adopted tabloid-style tactics with great success.
Some mainstream magazines have adopted tabloid-style tactics with great success.
2008 HowStuffWorks

When Gene Pope bought the New York Enquirer in 1952, it had a circulation of less than 17,000 (Sloan, pg. 28). In the tabloid heyday of the late 1970s and 1980s, the National Enquirer's circulation topped 5 million (Sloan, pg. 218). Overall tabloid circulation has dropped by as much as 60 percent in the intervening years, with the Globe's circulation dropping below 1 million and Weekly World News only selling about 300,000 copies per week. Today, the National Enquirer reports a circulation of just 2.7 million, while American Media reports total circulation for the Enquirer, Star, Globe, National Examiner and Sun at 5.4 million [ref]. This steady decline shows no signs of stopping.

The decline might actually be the result of the tabloids' success. The skyrocketing sales of tabloids and their focus on entertainment rather than hard news caused the mainstream media to adopt some tabloid tactics to increase readership and viewership. When the media furor over the Monica Lewinsky scandal was at its peak, readership of tabloids actually dropped. The mainstream news outlets were giving their readers all the scandalous information they could possibly want. Today, magazines like People and Us have taken a mellowed-out tabloid formula, made it glossy and turned it into something people don't feel embarrassed to read in the waiting room at the dentist's office. Tabloid success even created an entire genre of TV show -- tabloid TV. Shows like Hard Copy and Entertainment Tonight offer viewers the same kind of stories and celebrity gossip the tabloids provide, but at a quicker pace and in a more visually appealing form.

For more information on tabloids and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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