Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Reader Elite

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Bloomingdale's became the hottest store around, some department stores in the Omahas and Indianapolises of the world tried to save themselves from the increasing competition of discounters on one hand and boutiques on the other -- remember when "boutique" was a new, cool word? -- by going similarly upscale, becoming stores full of designer sections and the like. Most of them failed, because you have to have a sufficient number of rich, style-conscious people in your market to support such a store. They made their middle-income consumers feel dowdy and unwelcome while not drawing in enough of their target audience, which probably was not sufficient in the first place to support an institution the size of a department store.

Partly this was geographic and partly they were ahead of their time. There is a Nordstrom/Neiman/Bloomingdale cadre in most metropolitan areas now, of people who either moved there or of people who grew up wanting that sensibility. But you couldn't just impose that sensibility on the people who were already there in the 1970s and 1980s. It was putting on airs, to them.

It's not exactly the same thing, but it reminds me again of my colleague, a great reporter and editor, who said back in the glory days that he wished we had only 50,000 subscribers -- the right 50,000 -- instead of 500,000, because then we could just write and edit the paper for people who were interested in capital-J journalism, and stop having to publish the third race at Liberty Bell Park and school lunch menus. Of course, he knew this would be ruinous to our pay. But he (and I) were from the generation of journalists who were not trained to "publish a newspaper" in the old sense of sending "In the Service" and blow-by-blow City Council accounts down to the composing room. We wanted to produce informed stories for informed people to make informed change, and the fact that most people had far less interest in such matters that we did was just something that history would take care of. Eventually we would get the audience we deserved.

My esteemed compatriot and mentor Doug Fisher, at Common Sense Journalism, notes a couple of articles, one about journalism education and one about the Christian Science Monitor, that speak to this point.

As Doug notes, the Monitor always went for an elite audience. But most newspapers told the same news to the masses. That role may not be economically possible now, much less whether anyone actually wants it. But is news for elites the way journalism really wants to go? Often it seems like that is the dream or goal -- that freed from the responsibility to produce newspapers for the masses, a great flowering of journalism will occur, to be lapped up by a small but influential and educated audience. Out with the Robesonian and Pajeronian, in with the Davosian.

My former colleague later admitted chagrin when reminded of his statement. The point of almost every newspaper was to speak to the community, not just to the opinion leaders. The New York Times is Bloomingdale's. What happens if the Denver Post or Oklahoman -- in whatever medium -- decides its role is simply to be the New York Times of Colorado or Oklahoma, to give "important news" to people who appreciate it and will understand how to act on it? Will the Volkischer Beobachters of our day then have an even wider field to till? If so, will journalists have failed society even while speaking to an audience that "gets it" -- that visits journalism's new boutiques in which the Wal-Mart masses never intrude?

There is something to be said for the middlebrow, because that is where the middle class can exist without feeling outclassed or underclass.

No comments: