"If it bleeds, it leads" was the slogan sarcastically ascribed to a TV station's story play philosophy.
But if it barks, it nets a boatload of viewers, sells a lot of newspapers, gets a ton of Web hits.
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Those clever preceding paragraphs, I envisioned, would be the stepping off point to a column expressing some incredulity about the amazing reach of animal stories, ones involving dogs in particular. And perhaps some amateur psychology about why we seem to care more about our pets than humankind. ("May I just say, on behalf of those who don't own dogs, that you dog lovers are freaks? If only people cared this much about their fellow humans ..." wrote one staffer when I was polling the newsroom as part of some research to authenticate my premise.)
Part of that was based on a remarkable litter of dog stories in the paper in recent days.
• Aurora man sentenced to a year in prison for beating a dog with a broom handle, knocking out five teeth. He had been convicted in the 1990s of killing his dog by intentionally running it over with his car. (June 1)
• Woodridge woman joins lawsuit after dog purchased online almost doesn't survive trip to meet its owner because of an array of illnesses. (June 1)
• Dog fatally Tasered by Roselle police after biting its owner, looking like a threat to others. (May 15)
• Woman walking dog in Addison, hears a "pop," dog goes down, apparently shot. Dies a few days later. (May 23)
• And the feel-good story of the millennium: Tank, the 5-pound Pomeranian from St. Charles, falls from the family boat into the Chicago River but survives because he thought to wear a life jacket, wanders the streets of Chicago before a good Samaritan finds Tank and returns him to his owners because, although he wasn't bleeding, Tank certainly was leading a number of weekend TV newscasts for the 30 hours he was MIA, and how could anyone not have known who Tank was? (May 29)
Yes, we needed a break from NATO coverage, but I did a mental double-take when I saw the Tank story. ("What am I missing? All this hysteria over a lost dog?" And I'm the doting owner of a 15-pound Bichon Frise.)
A story like that would seem to confirm one's suspicion that you can't possibly lose with a good animal story. It was at this point I had planned to unleash some compelling statistics on the matter. I trolled the home page of dailyherald.com, where we list the most-viewed stories of the day, expecting the abusive dog owner and online puppy-purchase-gone-bad stories to be in the top 5.
Not so. Puppy lawsuit was No. 4 and dog cruelty was a measly No. 18. Teresa Schmedding, assistant managing editor-content systems, did some further research and discovered the stories about Tank fared better and the Tasered dog piece did the best -- but it didn't even crack our top 50 for the year. She characterized the traffic for dog stories as "decent, but I wouldn't say amazing."
Amazing traffic, Teresa said, occurred with Friday's story about the students at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates getting busted for an unruly demonstration with glitter and silly string. That it came with a YouTube video was a big help, no doubt, but it had posted half as many hits as the Tasered dog story in its first two hours online.
Could that mean the types of stories we've historically thought were so popular are actually online dogs? Nah. Even "decent" traffic is trending in the right direction, and Teresa notes that dog tales tend to draw passionate online story commenting.
And if there's a lesson, it comes from Tank: Always wear a life vest, as you'll live to see your 15 minutes of media fame.