One Day Tom Brokaw Will Seem Like Walter Lippmann and Then I'll Really Have Something to Complain About

In the late 1990s, Doug McLennan created Arts Journal, a comprehensive aggregator of cultural journalism; for the past couple of years has been in charge of whatever is going on with the National Arts Journalism Program, which gave out fellowships at Columbia University for a while. (Until, one day, it didn't. I'm not really sure what happened there.) He's had a blog at AJ, Diacritical, that has been pretty episodic, goings weeks and longer without new activity. Totally understandable, of course; the man has enough else to do.

But it looks like he's resuming it, starting with some considerations on how badly the notion of the newspaper as part of "mass culture" serves us, especially now:

Newspapers have not traditionally been mass market. In fact they were the classic niche subsidy model. The genius of newspapers was that they aggregated lots of mini-content - comics, bridge columns, stock tables, crossword puzzles, the arts, business, sports - and built enough of a combined audience to subsidize the content that otherwise would not have paid for itself.....

Yet somewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn't specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more "mass culture" a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

This point seems perfectly obvious -- until you stop to ask why, if it's so obvious, the point is so obviously being missed.

Instead, the anxious effort to "draw younger eyes" tends to follow only too well-established patterns, which McLennan sums up as "Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light." All of which can be handled better (if "better" is the word for it) by other media.

He indicates that the next item at the blog will discuss just how big the audience for celebrity effluvia really is. It's certainly not the kind of thing that builds up a steady following, a public. I take it that his intention is to try to argue against the dumbing-down trend on more or less rational grounds.

The effort is admirable, but probably mistaken -- premised on much too generous a sense of how decisions are made. It's not that the people in charge are adapting themselves to a "media surround" that is otherwise foreign to them. On the contrary. They are in it, and of it, more and more all the time. Print journalism is not the "first draft of history" but now, rather, the first draft of CNN. And everybody seems pretty much okay with that.

Long ago, the badness of the writing in Time magazine was so distinctive that people referred to "Timestyle." (Dwight Macdonald did a parody of it, and ended up being hired by Henry Luce. Tough luck, that.) But it was something that evolved in a closed-off cultural institution answerable only to its own rules -- a publication that revelled in its power to define what counted as news. It was crappy, yes, but it was an inner-directed crappiness.

Today the crappiness of Time is other-directed. A good example, from the current issue, is the "interview" based on questions sent in by readers. Its subject is Tom Brokaw, who is famous for ... uh, reading stuff on NBC Nightly News? A celebrity, anyway. Someone well known for being well known.

Such crud is the product of a sensibility for which TV itself is the cultural dominant. The day when Walter Lippmann could call newspapers the equivalent of a book -- among the most important books published in a democracy, he said, because it was the only one most citizens read, let alone read daily -- is probably over, because his point wouldn't be understood by the people who edit and publish them.

(crossposted from CT )

November 15, 2007 8:09 PM | | Comments (3)

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See also: Trow, George W.S.

Trow is definitely one of my basic reference points.

Yeah for this! And for root-checking the dearly departed Trow. (Let's throw in William Hazlitt for good measure too).

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