Susie Cagle Susie Cagle, 4/29/2006 [Archive]

A Youthful Look at the Old Gray Lady

A Youthful Look at the Old Gray Lady

Last month, The New York Times redesigned its website for the first time in five years. The new format clearly reflects some of the most popular design trends in the blogosphere, such as using a wider home page, larger and more attractive color photographs, and giving readers more of a voice in expanded commenting and 'most blogged' sections. It's admirable that the Times, the preeminent American newspaper, is taking its web life seriously. There's certainly reason to: the paper's print circulation is only about 1.5 million while its website draws more than 12 million visitors each day.

But if the Times wants to keep up with the times, it'll have to do more than just spice up its website. The Old Gray Lady's readers are only getting older and grayer -- even its average reader on the web, the supposed realm of the young, is 46 years old. And while it prints some well-reported and well-written news articles, its arts and style coverage of people under 30 - who are, for better or worse, some of the most prominent New Yorkers - is condescending and pitiful.

The paper is not only ignoring its younger audience, it's actually alienating them with its stilted, naive articles on hipster culture. When covering popular indie music, such as in profiles of Deerhoof (November) and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (September and December), the Times consistently compares every group to Radiohead no matter how different they may sound, because it's the only band that the average affluent, middle-aged, college-educated Times reader might have heard of and associate with 'indie.' When covering the 'growing popularity' of the 'beer pong' drinking game in a feature article in October 2005, the Times consistently referred to 'beer pong' when they were actually discussing 'Beirut,' an entirely different game. The paper only realized its mistake after Gawker.com caught on and publicized it.

Perhaps the best example of the paper's us-and-them attitude and mishandling of stories about youth culture is their coverage of the social networking website MySpace.com. On Aug. 28, 2005, the Times printed its first full article on the popular site, a 2,100-word feature brimming with patronizing and half-true generalizations. 'MySpace is-- a place where the walls are papered with posters and photographs, the music is loud, and grownups are an alien species,' wrote Times reporter Alex Williams. 'Although many people over 30 have never heard of MySpace, it has about 27 million members-- and passed Google in April in hits,' five months before the Times bothered to write about it.

Since this late discovery, the paper has mentioned MySpace more than 60 times in the last six months; it's become a stand-in for real, substantive reporting on young adults and what they're doing. On Feb. 19, MySpace inspired an 1,800-word feature article about young adults' digital self-portraiture, as is often displayed on the site. Williams quoted developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who summed up the 'new trend' as reflective of the idea that, 'Adolescents think people are more interested in them than they actually are, that people are always looking at them and taking note of what they are doing.'

But this is exactly what the Times does: it's at once obsessed with youth culture yet patronizing and dismissive of it. The paper should be thinking beyond its average middle-aged reader, to the future of newspaper journalism and about their influence over the media as a whole.

And why not think ahead to the new generation of potential newspaper readers? Their disposable income makes them attractive to advertisers, and they're intelligent, discerning media consumers - supposedly the Times' audience. But they don't respect the Times, and why should they? The Times doesn't respect them.

If the paper wants to get serious about its future, it should either get qualified reporters who know what they're talking about -- or leave youth culture to the dozens of other periodicals that do it better.

Susie Cagle is a student at Columbia Journalism School; she graduates in May.E-mail Susie at susie.cagle@gmail.com



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