Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Last Days of the Media

Sultan Knish

The magazine business isn't what it used to be. In the last ten years, Newsweek lost 2.5 million readers, and its newsstand sales are hardly worth mentioning. A full-page ad in it costs less than the price of a luxury car. Sold for a buck to the husband of an influential Congresswoman, merged with an internet site, it survives only by building issues around provocative essays and covers.

If you want to understand why Newsweek put a badly photoshopped picture of Obama with a gay halo on its cover or features Romney doing a number from The Book of Mormon, you need only look at those numbers. Fifteen years ago desperate tactics like that were for alt weeklies like The Village Voice, but Time and Newsweek are the new Village Voice. Or the new Salon.

There is no news business anymore, just media trolls looking for a traffic handout, feeding off manufactured controversies that they create and then report on. Magazines and sites struggling to stay alive while preaching to a narrow audience which likes essays by leftist cranks and mocking pictures of conservatives. And they're not alone; any magazine that still covers politics, covers it in the same exact way.

 There are house-style differences between the New Yorker, which still features its trademark cartoons, and Vanity Fair and Esquire, and Time and Newsweek, but they are all basically the same. The same essays repeating the same views for the same audience; all of them fighting for that small slice of urban yuppie audience which DVR's Mad Men, has Michael Chabon novels on the shelf that it hasn't read yet and is forty percent gay.

The real 1 percent is right there. That small elitist fragment of America which writes books for itself, makes TV shows for itself and writes outraged articles for itself about a tiny 1 percent elite that runs everything. It has its own books, its own TV shows, its own music, its own stores, its own stations, its own brands and now it has most of the magazines to itself. It's a claustrophobic village raising its own inner child with inane repetitions of its narrow-minded views.

If I'm reading through a long mocking piece on Midwestern Republican primary voters who support Michele Bachmann, a sensitive piece on gay teenagers being bullied in school or an essay by a Muslim columnist on American Islamophobia, how can I tell which magazine I'm reading? Easy, is it the one with a gay Obama on the cover or the one with a woman breastfeeding a three-year-old?

The story is no longer the story. Now the cover is the story with magazines reporting on their own covers, which become the story. And the story? Who cares about the story really. You can know everything about the story by glancing at the cover. And then you don't have to buy it anymore, which explains why newsstand sales aren't doing too well.

Magazines like to tell advertisers that every single subscription sale actually means five or six readers across a family. That's wishful thinking. Families with five or six members are not buying Time or Newsweek these days. They might be subscribing to Popular Mechanics or Ebony, but the Newsweek subscriber is lucky if he has two people in the house, at most three, and one of them is probably a cat.

Don't weep for Newsweek though. It's a brand and brands never die. They just get dumbed down and sold and resold. Five years from now Newsweek may be an airline magazine or just an internet portal tracking Twitter news trends, but it will be around in one form or another. For now there's Newsweek Polska with a six figure circulation, Newsweek Korea with 40,000 readers and Newsweek Pakistan with 15,000 readers. Perhaps one day Newsweek will be remembered as a Pakistani news mag that got its start in the States.

The brands may have a future, but the content doesn't. There are only so many provocative essayists around and only so many people willing to buy badly photoshopped covers featuring the controversy of the week. The friction of the controversy makes dull people seem interesting and stupid people seem smart. It makes the kind of people who moved to New York to be able to see Will Ferrell make fun of Bush on Broadway feel that they're relevant, but there aren't enough of them to support a magazine with international news bureaus and all the trappings of a serious news organization.

There's barely enough money in that market to cover the expenses of Salon, Slate and The Nation, reliably lefty publications which cravenly feed their audiences its prejudices back in small doses. Time and Newsweek muscling into that same turf, not to mention every other site and magazine following that same business model, is a bit much.

Advertisers only need to reach that same audience so many times. There's money in selling Bose stereos, Cancun vacations and AMC shows to them, but you can only sell it to them so many times. When every magazine is elitist and when the elite is narrow and inbred, there are suddenly too many llamas in a single paddock.

The biggest problem for the media is that no one is paying attention anymore. The iPad and Kindle haven't meant salvation for the magazine business, because any media device fragments focus. It's hard to engage readers when they're not engaged with any one thing, when they're reading six sites and glancing through your latest Fareed Zakaria or Andrew Sullivan screed just to be able to tell their friends that they read it.

In a diminishing marketplace every outlet boasts of having the smartest and most influential readers. The truth is that no one has those readers anymore. The media makes its own influence because it is playing on an empty stage. It isn't influencing anyone, it's repeating back to its readers what they already believe because they already believe it. If they didn't already believe it, it wouldn't tell it to them.

The media knows that they have many options and that they're barely paying attention, so it capers like a court jester to try and capture their attention with another showstopping attack on Republicans. But even as it trots out Andrew Sullivan or Tina Fey or any of the other players in the vanishing line between entertainment and journalism, it knows that the attention is fleeting. Today its gay Obama cover makes the headlines, but what will it do next week?

An inbred elite is dull and in constant need of sensation. It has a brief attention span because it is always bored with itself. It feeds off a diet of constant mockery to reassure itself of its own fragile superiority. It wants the appearance of ideas, without the hard work of digesting them. Most of all, it wants the legitimization of its own right to rule. The theme of every elite is its own superiority, and the one we are saddled with is no different. Its message is that it has lifted up our society from a dark time of repression to a new era of enlightenment and that only it can lead us into the light.

The media is an echo chamber for people who work in the media. Its greatest reach is internal, within the complex of people who live or work in a few major cities within the publishing and broadcasting industries. Beyond them is a great void of purple mountains that they occasionally report on but have lost contact with.

America is a foreign country to them. More so than Indonesia or Pakistan. And the 1 percent that they still speak to feels much the same way. A foreign colony on American shores that disdains the natives with their queer morals and prejudices, and fears what might happen if they should rise up against their rightful rulers. That leaves the rulers with little choice but to redouble the propaganda barrage defending their right to rule. And that means another Newsweek cover coming up.

Newsweek might as well become a full-time Pakistani magazine because it isn't an American magazine anymore. It's the David Remnick New Yorker with all the class of the Tina Brown New Yorker. Its only signature feature is the transcontinental sneer and that's the signature feature of the entire media class, which knows more about Indonesia than it does about Indiana, and believes that the problem with America is all the Americans.

But even that is a sham because not only do they know nothing about Indiana, but they also know very little about Indonesia. The pretense at being globe trotting journalists that fills the pages of magazines and newspapers is a sham. Theirs is not the age of the classic correspondents who could cross a war zone and telegraph in a report. It's the age of media trolls who put a picture of a nuclear-armed North Korean leader under the headline, "Lil Kim". The Muslim Brotherhood can twirl them around its fingers because they're fools who can spend years in a country without learning anything more about it than the common knowledge at the expat bar.

The only function of the media is to spin talking points into something more glamorous. It always knows what the story should be, the only thing to do is dress it up and take it out for a night on the town. But no one reads it or pays attention to it anymore because it has nothing to say. The antics of Time or Newsweek are signs of desperation from media brats who know that the only way to hang on to their vanishing audience is by clowning around for them.

They can't engage the audience, no matter what they promise advertisers, because they have no intellectual or journalistic capital with which to engage them. All they can do is tell their audience what it already believes in an entertaining way. That is the traditional function of a court jester and it is the new function of the media, which may style itself as a "Protector of Democracy", but is in reality just the tyrant's capering fool in the rainbow halo.

No comments: