There isn’t much at this point we can say definitively about coronavirus, except that The World Health Organization says it’s a pandemic and we’re not allowed say where it originated (rhymes with “Shina”). That’s about it. But one thing about the virus is abundantly clear: if you’re in the anemic news media industry, it’ll cure what ails you. Call it panic-cillen.
Exhibit A: The Washington Post (motto: Democracy Runs Around Screaming in the Dark). As of 11 am Wednesday, March 11, the Post’s home page offered almost 50 separate items about coronavirus, before the WHO made the pandemic announcement. With 49 stories or headlines, the outbreak dominated the site, even though the big headline dealt with Joe Biden’s sweeping primary victory the day before. Who can resist those sweet, sweet crisis clicks?
All those Wuhanvirus stories (oops!) take up valuable real estate the Post would otherwise be using for some of its trademark tough-as-nails political reporting, like “Donald Trump is a Poopy Head,” or it’s in-depth news analysis pieces, like “Here’s Why Donald Trump is a Poopy Head.”
And where readers would turn to the Post’s unmatched lifestyle sections for recommendations on trans-friendly sushi bars or boutiques specializing in sustainable fair-trade underwear, they would find only grim reminders of the impending death harvest. I’m not saying the Post is responsible for the run on toilet paper, but dozens of stories on one site on one morning? Seems a bit much.
But the March 11 Post left almost no virus angle uncovered -- macro or micro, sublime or ridiculous. A column of “Live Updates” was headed by the news that “Two-thirds of Germany could contract virus, Merkel says.” Sobering. Further down, readers learned that “Coronavirus has made dating even more complicated.” There were two separate graphic features mapping the outbreak and a photo essay about how creepy places look when everybody’s quarantined.
There were plenty of opinion/perspective pieces dealing with the virus. One said “Our kids are watching how we handle coronavirus. Let’s teach them not to panic.” Good. Whatever you do, don’t show them the Post homepage. Another warned that “Partisanship has no place in managing the coronavirus outbreak.” That one appeared a respectable distance down the page from “Two Trump allies got coronavirus tests despite lack of symptoms.”
In Sports, two of the four stories shown discussed canceling sporting events or closing them to fans. In Food and Drink, there was “Here’s what you need to know about dining out in the age of coronavirus.” (Full disclosure: I didn’t read it, but it’s gotta be a better take than “Racists aren’t eating in Chinese restaurants.”) Business: “White House asks Silicon Valley for help to combat coronavirus, track its spread and stop misinformation.” Arts: “In a time of crisis, poetry can help focus our fears and transform ‘noise into music’.” In National news, all four stories were about the outbreak.
Schools closing, stock market dropping, vaccines in testing. Some sections escaped the virus chatter. Obituaries failed to have a note saying “You’ll envy them soon.” And I can only assume the Real Estate desk is still researching “Death Equity: maintaining your home’s value when Coronavirus has decimated your block.”
Cynics will inevitably suspect the virus overkill is just partisan Posties piling on bad news to hurt Trump’s reelection prospects. And, as stated above, clicks are king in the news biz and nothing drives traffic like a good crisis. But give the Posties this: when they load up with stories about closing offices to self-quarantine, they’re putting their money where their butts are -- at home on the couch.
According to Washingtonian magazine, “The Washington Post has sent a memo to all its employees encouraging them to work from home if possible in response to the novel coronavirus crisis.” Good on them. Here’s hoping they and everyone else get back to normal life quickly. If not, I hope they’ve stocked up on toilet paper. Soon there may be nobody left to produce the Post’s print edition.