Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pandering to the Masses, Then and Now

Journalism, it is said, is in decline. And one proof being offered is a trend towards deciding which stories to cover based not on what editors think is important, but rather on what readers want to read--which is to be determined by what they're searching for online.

The subject came up in a recent, and rather testy, interview with Arianna Huffington that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. The interviewer asked Huffington about an internal AOL memo, leaked shortly before AOL acquired the Huffington Post, saying that AOL wanted "95 percent of stories to be written based on what people are searching for." (Huffington protested that she shouldn't have to defend a memo that predated AOL's acquisition of her website, and said that the document was "very, very, very far away in terms of where the company is now.")

Obviously, journalism based on what people are searching for can leave much to be desired. We could end up with, say, a bunch of stories about Lindsay Lohan's latest escapades instead of a searching analysis of what's going on at Guantanamo. Or a lot of media coverage about the supposed falsity of President Obama's birth certificate instead of a serious examination of what to do about the economy. Oh, wait a minute: that IS what we've ended up with.

But say what you will about the state of American journalism (and there is indeed much to bemoan), this trend isn't exactly new. I've been spending a lot of time lately paging through a magazine that was published in 1807 (I'm researching a novel based on the life of the woman who edited it), and--what do you know?--the same issue, more or less, existed some 200 years ago.

For example: the magazine, which was called The Observer, began serializing a translation of a French novel called Adelaide; Or, a Lesson for Lovers. I'm not sure what the "lesson" was supposed to be, but by the standards of 1807 the novel was pretty racy. It's about a couple of horny teenagers who can't wait for the sanction of matrimony (or perhaps there was parental opposition to the match--I haven't read every word). They do what comes naturally, she gets pregnant ... you get the idea. Not too spicy by modern standards, perhaps, but it apparently caused a good deal of outraged comment in Baltimore in 1807.

Somewhat belatedly, the magazine's editor--Eliza Anderson--decided to stop the serialization. Once she had seen the novel in its entirety, she said, she realized it was "too glowing, too impure, to be presented by a female, to the chaste eye of female modesty." But lo and behold, the public--or at least the segment of it that wasn't outraged by the novel's publication--was outraged by its discontinuation. "Whilst some extracts we have made, from the most valuable works, are passed by," Anderson complained, "this love-tale excites the liveliest interest, and when its publication has been suspended for a week, the office door has not stood still a moment, for the constant, the continual enquiries that were made, to know when it would be continued."

It's hard to tell if Anderson herself was genuinely outraged by the "glowing" and "impure" nature of Adelaide. For one thing, later in 1807 she herself translated another French novel that may have been even racier--according to a modern scholar, it contained perhaps "the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction."

For another, she was pretty sensitive to what kinds of articles sold magazines. In fact, she started The Observer because its predecessor publication, for which she also wrote, was too dull. Anderson thought satire was the way to go--partly because she thought that was the best way to reform and mold people, and partly because she thought it made for a livelier publication.

She was right about the liveliness, but she ended up alienating quite a few people through her satire. On the other hand, as she recognized, the journalistic feuds that were fought out in the pages of The Observer and other publications actually had a salutary effect on sales. She noted at one point that subscriptions reached a sustainable level only after "some strokes of satire and criticism had given zest and interest to our pages."

But Anderson didn't just publish what she thought the public wanted to hear--not by a long shot. She never lost sight of her original goal, which was to educate and elevate the reading public of Baltimore, whether they wanted to be educated and elevated or not. So, alongside Adelaide and other fluffier offerings there were dense biographical tracts on Marmontel and Lord Mansfield and analyses of the contemporary political scene in Europe--the very "valuable works," no doubt, that avid readers of Adelaide were passing by. Not to mention a lot of digs at the follies and foibles of the Baltimore citizenry.

Perhaps the moral here, if there is one, is that successful journalism has always been some kind of balancing act between what readers want and what editors, and writers, think they should want. The Internet has obviously made it easier to identify readers' less-than-elevated interests and pander to them, but the basic issue remains the same. The trick, it seems, is to somehow present serious, thoughtful journalism in a guise that will appeal to the masses.

Maybe in another 200 years someone will figure out how to do that.

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