When the Target Audience Was the Kansas City Milkman

In 1960, when I went to work for UPI, there was still talk about writing so that the story could be understood by a Kansas City milkman. He was the wire service symbol of the average American and if you worked for UPI or the AP you wrote simply and directly so a Kansas City milkman could understand it.

He soon faded as a symbol because more and more journalists had no idea what a milkman was. Before the 1950s a milkman delivered milk to homes because refrigeration technology was primitive and many families wanted fresh milk on a daily basis. The milk came in glass jars that held a quart of milk and you left the used jars outside in a bin to be picked up and replaced with fresh bottles by the milkman on his daily route.

The milkman had achieved some fame in a 1950 novel, The Kansas City Milkman, written by Reynolds Packard, a former United Press foreign correspondent, and published by Dutton. Here’s the Kirkus Review:

The news agency world is the theme of the close woven stories of old timer Clay Brewster and fledgling Don Shelby. In the Paris office, Clay gives him the know-how, guides him past slipshod, clever Kester and pompous-fronted Rockwell, and the intrigues of the office and watches Don make good in the accepted Interworld Press way. . . .The cheap, mean policies of speedy news gathering, the needling up or smashing down of news, the peddling and pandering to customers that turns reporters into salesman or political eunuchs—these background a novel of cynical disillusionment, in straight journalese, set in post-war France.

By the 1980s the milkman was pretty well forgotten but he did make one more appearance in a 1984 song by Level 42, a British band. The song was included in the group’s fifth album, True Colours. The lyrics:

Born in this place
You only see so far
Hear what we say

If we put the truth in your hands
Would you really like to know
Kansas city milkman

A row of houses
Through the dawn
A sleeping city
Where I was born
I hear laughter
In the early light
Outside the playground
Were I learned to fight

Born in this place
You only see so far
Hear what we say

If we put the truth in your hands
Would you really like to know
Kansas city milkman

I read the papers
Every word
My only access
To the outside world
Yeah … survival
That’s my game
Just a common man
In that there is no shame … is there? …

Too much talking
Information … in the hands of the few
All the talking
Dis-information … that we take for the truth

Born in this place
You only see so far
Hear what we say

The world is a stage
And we know just who you are
What part do you play?

If we put the truth in your hands
Would you really like to know
Kansas city milkman

In the pre-digital world of the 20th century, a lot of journalism continued to be written for a mass audience, the equivalent of the Kansas City milkman. The metro papers in many states published a Sunday paper for not only the big city but the rest of the state. In Appleton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, we got the daily Appleton Post-Crescent but if you really wanted to understand the wider world you also got the Sunday Milwaukee Journal, written for dairy farmers as well as city people. That pattern existed in many states.

And then came the Internet, broadband, and Google to break the mass audiences into smaller and smaller pieces. A Kansas City milkman probably would have cancelled his Kansas City Star subscription, figuring he could get all the journalism he needed from Fox News.



    Dear Jack,

    Bull’s eye.

    But in Michigan, the milkman had to have left school in the ninth grade.

    A few years ago, I was told by a Harvard/Columbia School of Journalism graduate that his Columbia professor stressed that the ninth grader is the level of audience for whom you must write, no matter how smart and educated you happened to be. I wonder if the prof was from Detroit.

    This kind of condescension was and may still be taught.

    I stick to my rule of writing for your perhaps-yet-unborn grandchildren, at whatever age they may be when they read it. It’s amazing how much fluff you leave out if you know your job is to make your words palatable two generations beyond your own. (“Never underestimate the power of immortality.” – Ben Luck)

    If you believe that your grandchildren will be smarter than you are, you will of course be writing up.


  2. Phil White says

    I worked for UPI in the 60s but I don’t remember hearing the phrase Kansas City Milkman until I read Reynolds’ book about 15 years ago. … When my dad, father of five kids and recipient of six quart bottles delivered every weekday, was asked how much milk our family consumed, he replied: they drink five and break one every day.

  3. The purpose of news is to get the point across. The point of the song is that the establishment is hiding the truth..its not about comprehension. You don’t have to use long complicated sentences to get the point across. If they insist on writing to show how smart they are – they are not doing their job.

  4. Andrew Osler says

    I’ve been listening to the song for thirty five years. Today was the first day I decided to find out where the phrase Kansas City Milkman came from. Great article, thank you.

  5. I created news graphics at UPI Graphics in the 80s–always for that ‘milkman in Kansas City’ exactly.
    We had some great illustrators and designers then, while I initiated the role of ‘graphics reporter’ that has become part of an info design revolution.
    Apple gave us the first Macs and LaserWriters to develop the desktop graphics workstation, which has become a revolution of its own.
    I covered, graphically, the White House (with the legendary Helen Thomas), the State Department, the Pentagon, the Smithsonians and especially the Library of Congress–Map Room and stacks–all for the milkman.

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