Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Cosmopolitan, On the Rocks, Please

I was one of those college students who had a different major every year -- which is why I work for a newspaper but have a degree from the College of Architecture and Planning -- and one of the flavors of the year was sociology. And one concept that made a great impact on me during my sociology studies was locals vs. cosmopolitans.

I don't remember it exactly, but this summation from a research paper seems to be right:
"The distinction between cosmopolitans and locals draws from sociological theories of
role orientations that are rooted in Merton’s (1957) distinction between types of influentials. In his work, locals were individuals whose interests were confined to the community in which they exerted influence, and cosmopolitans were individuals who were oriented to the world beyond the community in which they exerted influence and regarded themselves as part of that wider world."

If memory serves, the reason this made such an impact on me was that I considered myself to be a cosmopolitan, but the rule of thumb was that 80 percent of a population were locals. So I was doomed to spend my life among rubes, but of course, as an undergraduate in Indiana, I already thought that before hearing of Merton's distinction between types of influentials.

(The 80-20 proportion was already ingrained in me through advertising for Farm Bureau Insurance and its "Thrifty McBip" 80-20 collision coverage. My father worked for the Farm Bureau Co-op and so my car was insured by the Farm Bureau; and anyway, Thrifty McBip, advertised with a drawing of a stock-company Scotsman, was another name to remember.)

At any rate, if you were running a department store in the 1960s, you had stuff to appeal to locals and stuff to appeal to cosmopolitans. For the rich and stylish you had, if you were Ayres', the Meridian Room, which brought Paris fashions to the heart of the Midwest; you also had the basement store. You had Herman Miller furniture and Thomasville furniture, probably in those 20-80 proportions.

Bloomingdale's became the store of the 1970s by appealing to the cosmopolitan population of New York -- indeed it abandoned its previous local orientation to go after this new audience. In Manhattan, perhaps 80-20 didn't apply; perhaps the 20 percent was simply so large as to constitute a real market; perhaps locals were simply more cosmopolitan. Bloomies went after its cosmo population and it paid off; other stores oriented themselves toward it and found their "local" customers leaving and not enough "cosmo" customers to make up for it. (See earlier post on Bloomingdale's.)

The problem is that a business with a mass customer base (and the associated cost structure) has to take the customers it can get and not just the ones it wants. If I run an art gallery and decide that Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, is not truly art, I can go after the customers I want, and I and the two people who work for me will find out if they are going to come to our location in a trendy-yet-lower-rent neighborhood on the edge of a Boho zone. If I run a mall art-gallery chain, I had better decide that Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, belongs in my gallery, if not the National Gallery as well. Because my customers are apt to see him as -- well, I was going to say as the latter-day John Singer Sargent, but that just confirms me as a cosmopolitan. They're going to want to put on their walls that cute little mill scene with the lighting that looks like Jesus is coming for a visit. Because Kinkade clearly has a high level of artistic skill. It's not Elvis on black velvet. It's just not Art. (Or Aaaahhhhhht.)

What brings all this to mind is the Indianapolis Star's recent success in print with zoned neighborhood sections (as mentioned in this post) as juxtaposed with this column by John Dvorak in PC Magazine that attempts once again to tell us why our business is failing.
John, who has written for my newspaper and who is the same age as I am and who therefore is a wonderful fellow, is clearly a cosmopolitan, as his Wikipedia page shows. (Never trust Wikipedia, but you can't live without it.) What interested me is on the second page of his column, where he says:

"I am not going to buy the San Francisco Chronicle because it has the sports scores of the local grammar-school intramural girl's soccer games. I would buy it, however, for an exclusive article detailing life within the Green Zone of Baghdad , with photos shot by a National Geographic photographer, accompanied by an article penned by Carl Hiaasen." (Links his.)

Pam Fine's column indicates that eight percent of readers in Indianapolis turned to the Star in print because it has, in effect, the local grammar-school intramural girl's soccer games. (I will get around to the content of the local Stars soon.)

Somehow in the 1980s we became locked into this cosmopolitan-vs.-local dichotomy, probably in part out of the need of journalists to show, starting during the turbulent and heady times of the 1970s, that they were not locals. Before the Kennedy administration, we believed everyone in the United States was a local. And anyone who has asked a reporter graduating from one of the top journalism schools to spend an extended period covering Lower East Amwell Township knows this problem. Heck, that was me in 1975.

But sociology would indicate to us that 80 percent of our readers may be locals. Perhaps more in Fort Dodge. Cheap shot. I'm a cosmopolitan! What can I do?

L.S. Ayres used to have both the basement store and the Meridian Room. Can it be done in the 2000s? Or are cosmopolitans now so cosmopolitan that they will never sully themselves with locals?

And if that is the case -- in an eaa where the cosmopolitan reader can dine at an endless table of offerings from around the world -- are we by trying to relate to those customers who are like us but who cannot support us as a business model, dependent as we are on a pipeline into the local reader's home to supply certain advertising and types of content?

Carl Hiassen has a solid fan base for what he does; is Carl Hiassen on Iraq sort of like Thomas Kinkade trying to encapsulate the vision of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"? If I'm selling, is anyone buying? Newspapers may simply be a business for locals.

But to end with words of Dvorak's that we can not only salute, we can stand up and cheer, and perhaps pay for him to sit for a portrait by Kinkade:
"Publishers do know that their publication is their product, right? And they do know that if it's losing circulation, the key to reversing the trend is not to make it worse—right? How does making a product worse fix a problem? ... I mean, there are ways of saving money and cutting costs other than cutting staff and hanging on for dear life."

1 comment:

Gerri Berendzen said...

It's way too rural here for anything to be considered cosmopolitan. And I enjoy the rural part (while I miss some of the metro stuff). But cosmopolitan vs. local might not be the only problem.
Another issue is what people of different age groups expect.
We did a redesign recently that refocused the way we handle nation/international news (more briefs) and beefed up the local side. At a focus group, two customers actually got into an argument over whether we should run more youth sports scores. The older reader wanted more book and theater reviews. The soccer parent-aged reader replied "I can get that on the Web. Give me what's happening in my life."
Like the department store, newspapers will drive themselves under trying to be all things to all people. We need to figure out what we need to be for our area — and that's not the same in New York as Quincy. (Kind of like Macy's figuring out the Midwest isn't looking for the same merchandise as the East Coast.)
But places like the burbs in Indianapolis might be finding their readers are more like those in a 45,000 pop. town in Illinois than New York.