Soft vs. Hard

tHE VERY dry public editor of The New York Times, Byron Calame, asks the question, Can ‘Magazines’ of The Times Subsidize News Coverage?

I was hoping for a business study, showing how well-marketed ad-friendly parts of the paper might pay for the giant newsroom, despite the slow leak in the advertising bubble. Instead, he offers a moral argument: that “fluffy” new feature sections, like hopped-up jazz arrangements of favorite hymns, can now be countenanced in order to attract the contributions that support the sacred chancel of the newsroom.

As one who was kept on this side of the choir screen on 43rd Street for three long years, this is not a new argument. It is based on the the distinction between “hard” and “soft” news, dating from the early days of newspapers when news often was a matter of life and death.

Hard is the pure stuff of alpha correspondents, striding in their well polished riding boots through the cane fields of Cuba, the sewers of Danang and the caves of Afghanistan.

The highest form of journalism, in this cosmology, is war reporting. The second is any “foreign” assignment. Everything else comes third, including the entire Washington Bureau. You don’t rise to the top of The New York Times unless you have covered a war brilliantly; you rise faster if you’ve gotten shot at; or at the very least ran a bureau in, say, Beirut. All of the executive editors have had their own foreign bureaus. The incumbent, Bill Keller, missed the shooting, but got the next best assignment, Moscow bureau chief at the end of the Cold War. He won a Pulitzer for his work, and steady promotions since.

Hard news, then, is war, statecraft, politics, crime and the markets. Soft news is what teenagers are talking about, the colors worn by women in Guatemala—and why, the language of call centers, the diet of athletes, the design of airplanes, and so forth. Sports is soft with a hard crust, a kind of crème brûlée, but so many newsmen like it, they put it in the paper a long time ago.

Calame is the former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, now loaded with the breezy Personal Journal and, more recently, the funz-a-poppin’ Weekend Journal. He must have retired from Dow Jones muttering about the onset of these gooey-soft “magazines,” only to end up the thankless job of ombudsman at the Times, where, Keller tells him, “we put out a daily newspaper plus about 15 weekly magazines.”

Keller told him that the sections “exist in large part to generate advertising revenues.” As though this is a bad thing. The classic 20th century journalists are either aristocrats with a disdain for business, crypto Marxists, or pères manqués—lapsed clerics who regard the accumulation of money as something better left to Caesar. Or Murdoch.

Neither editor believes that all this stuff about real estate, fashion and travel is real journalism. Calame leads off his column, in a dismissive, condescending tone:

A perfume critic? Yes, The Times now has one. Chandler Burr’s Scent Strip column appears in the high-gloss T: The New York Times Style Magazine, where the often-fluffy lifestyle coverage is a world apart from the kind of journalism in the daily sections of the paper.

Don’t these guys ever get out of the building and talk to real people? Have they never been to a cocktail party in New York City? Of course they have, but how did they fail to notice that the conversation is almost exclusively about real estate, fashion and sports—and then celebrities, pop music, celebrities and stuff to buy?!

Okay in the last couple of weeks, the mid-term election has come up once or twice. And Kim Il Sung was mentioned briefly. But Iraq notwithstanding, most would-be newspaper readers have no urgent need to know anything in the A section. Their lives are secure. Their lifestyle always seems to get better. The President has not called on sacrifice, and they are not making any. So when they get together with their friends, they don't talk about hard news, they talk about sex. Women. (Or men.) Places to go. Food to eat. Clothes to wear. Cars to drive. And that exquisite new Italian sofa, Swiss watch, Korean TV set, American sneaker.

They talk about how children have taken leave of their parent’s world and move about in the grip of one medium or another, or all of them. They talk about their health, and the hopeful signs of a cure, about brighter teeth and younger-looking skin. They talk about their aging parents, and their retirement plan, and what to do about the kitchen.

The Sudan, the Group of Eight, Nancy Pelosi, seldom come up. Yet for the old journalists of the New York Times, this is what counts, and all the rest is fluff.

Magazines caught on to the stuff of people’s lives a long time ago. In the 1960s, Newsweek recognized that people care about fluff when Osborn Elliott introduced the famous "Lifestyle" section in the 1960s. Back then the Times stilled called the women’s page, "Food, Family, Fashion, Furnishings." There were four lower-case Italic "f's", presumably because Italic and lower case looked feminine to the news editors who did the layout.

Newsweek knew more about what women were interested in, and gave them the credit for caring about things that actually mattered. And they were right: The way kids were brought up had much more impact on modern society than, ultimately, Fidel Castro.

When you are not running for your life, or worrying about whether you can put food on the table for your family, when the stress of the early 20th century city has faded into the suburban world of play dates, iPods, and pilates classes, the hard news that the Times ranks so highly can be learned through a headline on the Web.

As Newsweek took women’s issues more seriously, Rolling Stone was the avatar of their kids. The soft world of sex, drugs and rock and roll was revealed issue by issue, story by story. This was stuff you couldn’t get in the Times, or on CBS news, but to the readers in the late ’60s and early ’70s this was where they lived. Rolling Stoneinsiders, led by Hunter Thompson, put themselves in the story, in the style of Tom Wolfe and the “new journalism.”

Of course this kind of journalism is whole lot like the vivid, unrestrained writing found in the New York Journal, or the Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1920s, when such highly charged wackos as H. L. Menken got the freedom to do personal reporting (and ultimately their own magazines).

By the 60s, this dangerous freewheeling style had been tamed, and the journalism schools and the Pulitzer board, as Kurt Anderson pointed out in a recent, slightly screwy column in New York about the L. A. Times, have pushed newspapers into focussing on the “straight” news that is now so . . . boring. And straight is the right word, for the New York Times is still far from gay, and the mind of the newsroom has been expanded about as much as a pitted dry prune.

Hunter died last year, and New Journalism has just about faded away. The successors to the Harold Hays’ Esquire and Clay Felker’s New York, such as Vanity Fair, are largely given over to celebrity journalism. The hard news crowd looks down on celebrity news with the same condescension with which they regarded coverage of the pop culture of the 60s. But celebrities provide a set of continuous narratives, largely absent in the current media. As Bonnie Fuller says, in the big cities we no longer can sit on our porches and gossip about the neighbors. Celebrities are our global neighbors. This seems obvious, but the Times was the first to admit its surprise at the “global outpouring of grief” when Princess Diana was killed.

Yet all of us knew her well, the beautiful, troubled, kind-hearted, fun-loving princess—because our lives have become . . . soft. And for now at least, The New York Times and the rest of the news establishment look at celebrities, and reality TV, and fantasy-league football, and video games as soft. It’s like the financial establishment that can’t understand that the service economy is the economy.

Popular culture is our news. And if newspapers ever learn this, people might start reading them again.

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