Dividing America

By Seeger, Murray | Nieman Reports, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Dividing America


Seeger, Murray, Nieman Reports


Where did it start, this slicing and dicing of mass media audiences? The most conspicuous decline was among the large, broad-appeal magazines -- Look, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, the original Life. They were cafeterias of features, hard news, pictures and fiction that could not compete with the colorful action on television.

The racks at supermarkets and drug stores are jammed with magazines, but they are more and more the narrow-focused, niche "zines." Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report hang on but they have to fight with Wired, Psychology Today and a host of others that have strong, specific audiences.

Network radio faded simultaneously with the big magazines, for similar reasons. Where Washington once started its day with such fine newscasts as the CBS 8 o'clock report, we have brief bulletins followed by traffic reports, weather and talk, talk, talk. Even programmed disc jockeys am dinosaurs.

The number of radio stations has multiplied, but their audiences are splintered into ever smaller pieces. Serious news has been ceded to National Public Radio (long may it live).

In contrast, the number of metropolitan newspapers started to decline in the 1960's but their total reading audience has stagnated. These big papers are generally prosperous as quasi-monopolies appealing to omnivorous audiences.

Now television, which started with the widest reach of all mass media, is entering the era of niche-casting instead of broadcasting, joining niche radio and niche publishing. The mass media, thus, are at the heart of the social trend of segmenting American society.

Prof. Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania has documented the trend of segmenting audiences in his recent book, "Breaking Lip America" (University of Chicago, $22.50). He puts most of the blame for the development at the door of the advertising industry.

"I believed initially that mass-media firms were the primary sources of this development, a result of executives' competition for audiences in the face of cable TV, home computers, the Internet, interactive television, CD-ROM and other new technologies of the 1970's. 1980's, and 1990's," he writes. "The more I looked at the issue, though, the more I suspected that the advertising industry, in its influential position as the major support system of U. S. media, was the key force behind this divisive message to America."

It is certainly nice to find an alternative enemy to television in discussing a trend as ominous as this movement toward separating the American people into ever smaller, more isolated tribes instead of strengthening the encompassing bonds of the whole nation.

But, certainly, advertisers have managed to accelerate the trend toward publishing the "Daily Me" instead of the "Daily Us," as described by Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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