Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Same As It Ever Was

Take a look at this front page from the Minneapolis newspaper in the 1920s. There are eight stories and seven have to do with scandal, tragedy, crime or violent crime. The last one is a sports story.

Does the modern Commercial Appeal even have eight stories on its above the fold front page any more? Truthfully, I couldn't tell you since I haven't looked at one in ages. If I check out the CA at all, it's online. But I do notice that the CA seems willfully cheerful, and its headlines are models of obfuscation and muddiness.

Notice how dense the Minneapolis paper's page is. That's a lot of information for you to absorb right there. The CA went the old USA Today route with large pictures and lots of white space.

But it's the subjects of the headlines, the focus on crime and scandal that should ring familiar. Doesn't it look like the evening news?

Our circumstances may change, but fundamental human nature is largely the same, decade after decade. People then are like people now. This I believe very firmly. Did you know that some of what we know about Greek history comes from the grafitti written on the walls of the public forums?

Do you know why perfume was invented? Europeans didn't take baths, so of course they stank like a barn. But they wanted to cover that smell to appeal to each other. Even though we today are hygenic, the habit contines, it's roots forgotten. People who are otherwise clean and fresh smelling cover that up with a chemical bath because it's what we do, because the body is filthy and smelly.

People want to know the crime and scandal of the day. It appeals to the part of our brain that is concerned with our place in the social heirarchy. We are status-oriented creatures, Alpha males watching out for the scheming Betas, Gammas hoping that misfortune will knock aside some Delta so we can move up a notch.

I suspect that's part of the reason that the newspaper is suffering locally. People are turning to television news for their fix of "today's social standings." Editor Chris Peck has set the CA on a course that lets readers know that it inhabits a higher, loftier plane, one that it will bring you up to if you but repent your ways. I can't tell the number of times some editorial has just reeked of "we watch what we say because we don't want to stir up those dangerously volatile masses." They are Better People who carry the White Man's Burden of bettering their inferiors.

They don't give the people what they want, but what "they" think "you" should have. Television news doesn't operate under any such restrictions and so it gives viewers what they want. One stays popular and the other withers away.

Is there a niche for what the CA does? Yes. Remember the "good news newspaper" Grit? Oh, you don't? Well, there you go.

Watching the CA move into niche-dom while believing it's found the path to wider readership, all the while cloaked in the belief that they are doing "good work," is not unlike watching Ignatius Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces. It didn't end well for him, either.

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