How Journalism Became Mostly About Strangers

A previous post about obits in big city newspapers being different from those in country newspapers said, “Serious newspapers are all about strangers.” Here’s Barbara Holland, who worked for a country paper in Virginia, writing about how country people see serious newspapers.

Country people read the Washington Post, of course; we may be 60 miles from the corridors of power, but we aren’t barbarians. We know that a successful democracy depends on an informed electorate, so we dutifully suffer information on Serbs and Kurds and Hutus; congressmen and prime ministers; terrorists, CEOs, and rock stars.

In an effort to personalize itself, the Post throws in human interest stories, heart-warming or heart-rending, but we don’t know those strangers either. It can make a person feel downright lonesome or, on a bad day, non-existent. Current events could blow us to splinters without even knowing our names.

Twice a week our copy of the Post includes a tabloid dedicated to our general areas, though it doesn’t recognize the sacred inviolability of county lines around here. Wherever there are occasional horses and fields, the Post feels, it’s all the same place, and that place is what’s down under the wings when the Post has to fly out of Dulles instead of National.

Our neighbors don’t appear in the tabloid’s pages, only certain county officials speaking in official capacity about edicts from Richmond. The rest of the Post coverage is high-school sports, which everyone concerned has already heard about, and self-congratulatory press releases from the hospital.

A person could feel that, deep in its heart, the Post doesn’t give a damn who won first place in the pies-and-pickles contest or even whether Joe the Pallbearer gets mistaken for Joseph of the Gas Station….

So, dutifully, we good citizens inform ourselves about famous strangers and foreigners and then turn to our friend the country weekly. It’s about us. Reading a serious newspaper we can only crouch passively under the deluge of information, but the hometown paper is an active tool: We can use the news. Grab the phone, barge into a meeting, and we get results….

Serious newspapers will sometimes stoop to running a gossip column, but their gossip, like their news, is peopled with strangers. Famous strangers. Reading about them, urban types who haven’t spoken to their physical neighbors in 10 years can make imaginary neighbors out of the famous.

The hometown paper has human neighbors, with pictures and captions. Each village and hamlet has its own reporter contributing a weekly column on such matters as the first robin, the Watsons’ trip to Disney World, birthdays, yard sales, visitors, and the gospel singers expected at the Baptist church on Sunday. The overall tone is gentle and kindly; there are no villains in these pages.

Barbara’s piece was published in the Washingtonian in June 1999 and since then the digital revolution has caused a drop in the Washington Post’s weekday print circulation from a high of 832,332 in the late 1990s to 359,158 last year. The Post now seems ever more impersonal and ever more a District of Columbia paper with the suburbs, even the close-in suburbs, covered by reports on official government activity and police reports on serious crimes (a simple murder might get two grafs).

Barbara said in her story, “In sophisticated places with serious newspapers, the average citizen doesn’t expect to see his face in the paper unless he commits a serious crime, which in Washington would mean bludgeoning a senior senator to death and then eating his flesh on the capitol steps at high noon.” Hyperbole 19 years ago, closer to the truth today.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    Good, enjoyable column! Thank you.

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