Readings — From the May 2015 issue

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From “Taking Animal News Seriously: Cat Tales in the New York Times,” a study by Matthew C. Ehrlich, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published online by Journalism in December 2014.

For all the disagreement over what today’s journalism should be, “cute cat videos” has become an epithet representing what many believe journalism should never be. The executive editor of the New York Times dismissed online media for aggregating “celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers, and news reports from other publications,” in contrast to the substantive journalism produced by elite newspapers like the Times.

However, the Times is hardly averse to publishing items about cats. Cat coverage in the paper has fluctuated. On average, fewer than five stories a year appeared from the 1870s through the 1910s. In the 1920s, the average jumped to more than twenty-seven stories a year and remained comparatively high into the 1940s. Story subjects from that era ranged from President Calvin Coolidge’s pet cat Blackie — who was given away after displaying a nocturnal “taste for blood” on White House grounds — to items like “Cat and Bird Declare Truce; Latter Uses Former as a Taxi.”

During the 1950s and 1960s, cat stories declined to only a handful a year, but starting in the 1970s, the number again increased. The Times’s profits had suffered in comparison with those of other newspapers that had invested in increased feature and lifestyle reporting. The Times subsequently paid frequent attention to goods and services aimed at well-to-do, city-dwelling cat owners — a story trend that has continued into the twenty-first century. The paper told of a specialist who “rode her bicycle through the Upper East Side from one cat-grooming emergency to the next” (1985), wrote about Manhattan boutiques that catered to cats with pricey rhinestone collars (1990), and reported on a twenty-four-hour Westchester veterinary clinic that offered “cheery cat condos with separate bathrooms” (2001). Since 2010, the Times has devoted an average of forty-five stories a year to felines, including pieces on cat videos being used to sell kitty litter and other products. Just as they do in literature and popular culture, cats in journalism play a wide range of anthropomorphized roles. In the process, they sometimes become hard news.

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