Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday morning musings - relevance & the ending of a column

This has been a somewhat mixed week dogged by slowly lifting flue. So just a bit of a review.

On Tuesday, my long running Express column was abruptly ended by the new editor who advised in a short email

"I am writing to inform you I've made some decisions about the sort of
columns I'll be running as part of the new-look Express.

From next week I'll be running 3 new columns - From the editor's desk, Gen Y
it matters, and a Friday Soapbox (featuring all the movers and shakers in
Armidale putting forward ideas to help improve the town).

I will no longer require you to send your columns each week. I put a note at
the bottom of your column in tomorrow's paper that it would be your last
column in the Express, but that readers can still follow you online at the
addresses you gave.

I wish you well in the future."

After 164 columns and over 80,000 words, I didn't quite want to vanish into the night Via a one sentence at the end of the column: "Editor's note: this will be Jim Belshaw's final column" followed by the blog details. So the editor has agreed to run a short letter to the editor next week allowing me to at least thank my readers.

The column replacing mine is "Gen Y it matters" subtitled in the promo "Issues that matter to our youth." At this stage it has yet to appear, so I cannot comment on the content. However, it is still an interesting and very clear example of a shift based on particular perceptions of reader interests and newspaper demography.

While I tried to write broadly in the column, the evidence is that the column appealed most to an older demographic in Armidale. It also appealed most to those who identified themselves as local, who thought of Armidale as home and wanted to know more about the place, as compared to the large transient or semi-transient (Armidale has quite a high population turnover) group who had less identification with the city.

This actually created a bit of a problem in writing. I wanted to write broadly, but my highest response columns were often those that centred in some way on Armidale past.

As it happened, my former and long standing editor Christian Knight himself belonged to one of the groups that the column really appealed to, providing a measure of protection and even a somewhat privileged position. I always knew when Christian really liked the column.

The new editor, Matthew or Matt Taylor, has worked for a variety of papers including the Canberra Times and Newcastle Herald and, most recently, edited a Rural Press newspaper in a popular tourist resort. He is a very experienced newspaper man and clearly wants to put his stamp on the paper. So in my case he has disposed of a column whose primary  appeal was to one demographic with a second that he hopes will appeal to a younger and broader demographic.

It all makes perfect sense, but I happen to know Armidale with all its sometime byzantine complexities rather well. I will be interested to see just how Matt balances it all, whether he can in fact achieve what he hopes. In the meantime, I have been demographied!

  One of the problems I face as a person, sometimes social analyst and as a writer is simply staying relevant. I have written a little on this before.

For much of my writing, it's not a problem. My historical and public policy writing stands alone, although even here I have to remember what people know and don't know. The body of what we might call common knowledge shifts with time, a process that has accelerated over recent decades.

In other cases, it's a real problem.

All writers mine their own experiences for material. As we grow older, our past experiences bulk larger and larger relative to our current experiences. The present becomes a layer on an ever growing past. Yet to our potential audience, that thin present layer is (as it was to us) is the dominant real.

Musing on this yesterday on the bus, this has been another reflective week for me, I shut my eyes. In front of me was a group of chattering university students about the same age as my daughters. Behind me, sat a girl around the same age engaged in a long personal chat on her mobile. With my eyes shut, I just listened.           

The cadence of language was different, the technology was different, but really it could have been conversations from exactly the same stage in my own life.

Technology is important, cadence more so, shared experiences most so. Technology I can understand, although here I have gripe that I will share in a moment. Cadence I can't do, it would just sound silly. Shared experiences I don't have beyond those now separated by an increasing gulf in time. The conversation is the same, but the wrappings are different. 

All this means that a growing gap is inevitable. The most that one can hope for is to understand a little about the nature of the gap, to try to identify and account for key features.

    My gripe about the new technology? It's so anti-social and even atomistic! We have a situation where people may be watching TV together while also playing on a variety of computer devices or just checking emails. There is little conversation. Each sits in a world of their own, isolated from each other unless they happen to be playing a computer game together while watching TV!

I think that this is really where I part company with the current, where I have to accept my lack of understanding. I actually like to talk and listen to people, not engage in social interaction increasingly mediated through devices! Here I do not wish to be relevant and current.  


Anonymous said...

Well Jim, while of course you must maintain a polite balance in your dealings with the newspaper world, I must say that it has been quite a few years since I last saw anyone under the age of 30 actually reading a newspaper - except to quick scan the job ads and accommodation section.

But I'd best stop before I say something I won't regret.


Evan said...

It will be interesting to see if a paper can attract Gen Y. If so I think this will be quite an achievement.

Jim Belshaw said...

As kvd picked up, Evan, I was phrasing my comments carefully. I think that it's actually silly to target Gen Y as though they were a homogeneous group. I think that Matt's come up with a conventional style newspaper answer.

There are all sorts of problems associated with the very concept of Gen Y and especially if linked to the idea of "issues that matter to our youth." It's a while since I wrote anything on this. Perhaps time for a revisit.

I think that it's true that newspaper readership is low in the under thirties, although I haven't see actual stats. There is too much competition, although some of the frees handed out at city railway stations do target and attract a younger audience.

If Matt really wants to attract a higher readership in the age groups covered by the conventional definitions of Gen Y. Both my daughters classify themselves as Gen Y; the idea of a Gen Y column dedicated to giving a voice to our youth made them chortle a bit.

Jim Belshaw said...

And, kvd, your last sentence made me smile.