Whatever the NEA report says – "Maybe cellphones are taking the place
of the portable book," he suggests – Keillor has what some might
consider a dumbly optimistic view of the future of the classics vs. the
future of, say, David Letterman. But it’s a firmly held view.
"In the course of doing `A Prairie Home Companion’ we try to avoid
pop culture references," he says. "We don’t refer to things like
`American Idol’ – we wouldn’t do jokes about it because you can no
longer assume that the majority of people have seen this or know what
you’re talking about. The entire world of popular entertainment has
become so fragmented that there are no longer uniting figures."
For example, despite Britney Spears’ status as a recognizable
celebrity, he says, few people would recognize her music as they still
recognize Frank Sinatra’s.
Keillor touches on the cultural shift that I think is being enabled by the enabling of the Long Tail: There are precious few "common experiences" for broad, national media to deliver. There’s no Ed Sullivan show.
Check that– there are thousands of Ed Sullivan shows, all with different lineups. You can’t count on anyone knowing all the songs in the top ten anymore. So, how to unify through common experience? Go local.
… But I think that American newspapers have taken a very serious
wrong turn, and that aside from a few newspapers the quality of the
product is in decline, especially for the reader, and I think that
newspapers have forgotten that their readers are readers and love
writing – writing is what people want. They don’t want a sort of
concept of journalism; they want writers. And writers are always
"This is what people turn to newspapers for. They don’t turn to
newspapers for advice and for personal service and for sort of glossy
pieces about lifestyle and home decor and cooking and how to bring up
your children. They’re really looking to newspapers for the same thing
that people looked to newspapers for back before television –
television didn’t change anything and USA Today didn’t really change
I suspect there may be some context missing from Keillor’s quote here, but here’s my take: TV and USA Today didn’t change the need that newspapers filled. Newspapers, however, were born and bred in the world of dominant broad media, and adapted unnecessarily. "Hmm. USA Today is popular. TV talk shows are popular. We have to be like them."
But in the Long Tail aughties, you don’t. Technology enables you to serve readers in the same way you did back in the day. Sure, you may not be serving a certain segment, but that’s OK. Your former mass is now a niche. And they’re hungry for you to come back. I’ve seen the numbers.