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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

It’s tempting to go to a news organization’s website, often loaded with celebrity gossip, and presume that they’re just giving the public what we want. Are they?

While audiences bear some complicity in consuming celebrity gossip, there are a few other important reasons that news organizations regularly feature celebrity stories too.

As I discuss in chapter 9 of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity “news” provides cheap filler content at a time when news budgets have been cut. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspaper advertising revenues have dropped dramatically as well. Celebrity stories take relatively few (if any) resources and are easy for audiences to follow.

When television networks first broadcast news reports, they were not under nearly as much pressure to earn profits and ratings. Considered public service rather than entertainment, news broadcasts were significantly shorter than today, especially considering the proliferation of 24-hour news networks and the internet.

News-oriented magazines have seen their circulations plummet in recent years. As I note in chapter 9, ad revenues declined significantly for the eight best-selling news magazines, including Time, Newsweek (which was recently sold), and U.S. News & World Report.

By contrast, magazines that feature celebrity content like People and US not only outsell news magazines, but their circulations are steady or increasing. Several new magazines, like In Touch and Life & Style have thrived in this otherwise dismal economic climate for magazines.

As I argue throughout my book, celebrity stories serve a purpose beyond mindless entertainment. And yet they should by no means replace traditional journalism, which is vital for any democracy. Journalism is struggling to reinvent itself as a profitable enterprise during the internet age. As profit and loss sheets increasingly dictate content, we are likely to see more, not less, celebrity stories in the news.

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