It could be said this week that if you want to understand news, you would consider Jimmy Fallon.
Here’s what happened: In 2016, the late-night comedian playfully tousled the hair of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who was a guest on his show. Sometime recently, Fallon told the Hollywood Reporter podcast he regretted doing that, and Sunday night now-President Donald Trump took to Twitter to ridicule Fallon’s remorse. The next night, Fallon responded on his show, and on Tuesday, various news outlets wrote about it.
Imagine this for a moment. A comedian tousles the hair of a candidate for president of the United States. Two years later, he talks about it with an entertainment news reporter, after which the now-president considers the regret important enough to address via his own direct conduit to the public, Twitter, and the comedian uses that occasion to fill the monologue on his entertainment program.
By what definition does any of this rise to the level of qualifying as “news”?
That would be this one: When Kelly Vold, our digital engagement editor, tucked a Washington Post story about the exchange near the bottom of our Tuesday afternoon news alert as a light alternative to breaking news about the Muslim travel ban, the murder trial of a once-influential suburban attorney 45 years after the death of his wife, two separate tragic car crashes and other attention-getting stories, it shot past them all. Vold watched as, literally in minutes, the Post report rocketed to the top of our most popular web stories.
When she expressed some surprise at the speed at which the public found the Fallon story, the two words that came to my mind were fake and news. Not because I questioned the inherent merits of this particular report, but because I am so often assailed with the term when certain readers think we covered a story that didn’t deserve coverage, put on the front page a story someone thought unworthy of such play or placed inside the paper a story someone believed deserved more prominence.
By certain standards, a petty dust-up between a self-described “goofball” and the leader of the free world hardly merits attention, yet for thousands of people, it was the piece they most wanted to read.
It’s a common phenomenon. Vold notes that restaurant openings and closings invariably attract readers even if they aren’t nearby, as in the cases of a recent story about a Vernon Hills eatery where dogs are welcome and the opening of a Wahlburgers in St. Charles earlier in the month. A piece on wooden trolls at Morton Arboretum in Lisle has been one of our most popular this month, she says, and other top pieces were as diverse as a Rob Feder column on the retirement of ABC 7 Chicago news anchor Kathy Brock and the Major League Baseball pitching debut of a former Mundelein High School phenom. Perhaps not so surprising was the rapid ascent when our guide to suburban fireworks displays went online Wednesday, but it certainly seems worth noting that a Sun-Times story we posted on our Facebook page about the return of Planter’s Cheez Balls was shared more often than most.
“You know what the news is …” the late legendary commentator Paul Harvey used to say, to which I reply, “No, you only think you do.” When it comes to exercising news judgment, you must always be prepared for some surprises.
The best you can do is to give the readers what you think they need to know and spice it up with a reasonable guess at what they might want to know. They’ll show you soon enough which of your decisions they appreciate, and, in somewhat the same fashion, you just have to let the eager critics determine for themselves which decisions were justified and which were “fake.”