The ‘Times’ gets the baby boomer joke, finally

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Boomers at play. ()
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"Don't Baby Boomers already have the ENTIRE nyt?"

So tweeted Chris C (who goes by @gentlemanstimes), in response to the news that The New York Times is starting a blog aimed at baby boomers. "Kind of a 'where's WHITE history month' situation," he added.

Earlier, this morning, "Morning Joe" cohost Joe Scarborough lambasted the Times for its dogged coverage of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's lavish real-estate holdings. His argument was rebutted later in the show, as sidekick Willie Geist brought up examples of the Times' coverage of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry's similarly ample accommodations around the world after Scarborough suggested there hadn't been any. (Times defenders like Nick Confessore and Jim Rutenberg took quickly to Twitter to amplify Geist's point.)

Who is The New York Times anyway? Is he or she a liberal? A centrist? A rich person (and if so, old money or new?) A middle-class scrapper? A tireless advocate for justice, or an obsessive about organic food or $3,000 shoes or crime in public housing?

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Of course it's all of these things and nothing. It can be fun to splice together the points of view of a million Times articles and try to imagine the exquisitely malformed hippogriff of a person that would emerge from those sources. But it's finally not really doable.

In order to explain how the same paper can suggest that a $200 dollar cotton T-shirt is a "get" and look down its nose on public-school parent-teacher associations that raise more than a million dollars for their schools, you really only have one recourse: print.

Politico's Dylan Byers has already noted the weird obsession many have with precisely where stories are located in the print editions of the Times when debating the evenhandedness of their coverage of politicians:

"I suppose one could argue that, at the end of the day, this is all just about the disparity between print journalism, which requires highly selective curation, and digital journalism, which allows for comprehensive -- and occasionally contradictory -- coverage to exist in one place, all at the same time."

That is the heart of a much larger matter.

In print, placement is a part of a news organization's identity. What are you saying about yourself if you put a picture of Nicki Minaj on your front page instead of a picture of Mitt Romney?

Much of the talk about the decline of print makes note of the many limitations that print has placed on journalism in the past, and the freedom that digital distribution has given journalism to be all it can be. But centuries of limitation also create new meanings, and we tend to forget that restriction can be constructive.

One of the problems facing longstanding media outlets today is that they find it difficult to sustain an identity for themselves, to create a sense of place on the web, and to learn from who comes and who stays what kind of place their readers want to be in. The hyperdistribution of media—the fact that people's "front pages" are really their Twitter and Facebook feeds and their email inboxes—has removed some of the tools publishers used to have to make statements about themselves.

One answer to that is the Buzzfeed model, in which fully distributed content dispenses with the need for a coherent home entirely. But the Times doesn't have that evolutionary option, any more than it has the option of not evolving at all.

Which brings us back to the Baby Boomer blog. Yes, the Times often writes from a point of view that already presumes the reader is of that generation, if not older. But that presumption is changing rather rapidly.

I doubt if the new blog will incorporate much of Jenna Wortham's reporting on Internet startups like Airtime, or Jon Caramanica's reviews of bands playing in Bushwick lofts. Yet, to many readers, these are two of the paper's biggest stars. It's a paper of infinite palimpsests, and the other layers are only visible on special occasions, or when you make a wrong turn in the digital byways of the Times.

If I accidentally stumble upon the wellness blog or T Magazine, it can cause me a serious moment of identity crisis. Just who do they think I am? When I look at the "most e-mailed list" I'm always stunned at the prevalence of food, health and opinion stories; my digital Times is mostly culled from the iPad app, and consists disproportionately of "Top Stories," "Arts," "Business Day" and "NY/Region."

And yet I know what both Scarborough and our incredulous Twitter-user are talking about. There is a sort of liberal, boomer feel to the paper, one that can never really be established with evidence.

But generations age, and change. Once, the Baby Boomers were the grown-up trendmakers, who the Times attended in the fascinated way it now covers the doings of parents who live in Park Slope ("an increasingly upscale neighborhood where the store was founded 39 years ago by a group of shaggy idealists inspired by the socially conscious ethos of the time.")

Now, those Baby Boomers are the people who write in to "Metropolitan Diary."

In one recent entry, a man goes to Starbucks and hears the person in front of him order what he hears as a "black guy." He asks the attendant, a barista, what that's all about; the barista puts his finger to his temple in the shape of a gun and says "two shots." He's outraged. Then sometime later he orders a coffee with a shot of espresso in it and hears the barista call out "Red eye!" He puts it together. (To which all I can say is: Why are the sources of Metropolitan Diary?)

Maybe trying to create a more explicitly Baby Boomer-specific web presence isn't such a bad idea. By isolating what's of interest to Boomers, perhaps the Times will find itself finally ready to relativize them, and to focus a little more clearly and sympathetically to the massive (digital) audience that is under the age of 50.

The print edition is no longer a satisfying organizing principle, and the fact that Times is trying to find new ways to organize itself online, and to make more gainful use of the broad and diverse audience it actually does have, is a sign that it's built to last. It also won't ever be quite the same thing again. But that's a good thing, right?