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Kama Sutra Journalism

Flipping channels the other night, I blundered upon Real Sex, the popular HBO series whose sniggering raciness always makes me want to trade in my genitals. A “multiorgasmic” middle-aged white woman was holding a Kama Sutra class on her living-room floor. After demonstrating a terrific new sexual position, she gushed, “For me, I can do a kind of windshield-wiper effect on my G-spot.”

I suspect The Wall Street Journal was hoping to accomplish the journalistic equivalent of the same thing when, on April 9, it shifted into a new position of its own -- a redesign to make the paper sexier. It switched around some sections, retooled its front page for the first time in 60 years (sullying its austere black-and-white with pastels) and introduced a regular new stand-alone section, “Personal Journal,” devoted to the lifestyles of the would-be rich and famous -- you know, investments, real estate, travel, wine, gadgets. Although “Personal Journal” does run a few articles about arts and ideas (its critics are pretty good), it’s essentially about saving money or spending it. (For the Right, the personal is the financial.)

The editors were eager to show off their new product -- Journal ads dubbed the changes “Our Biggest Story in 100 Years!” -- and readers didn‘t merely get the redesign itself. We also got a full-page article explaining how to read the new paper -- complete with graphics about as useful as an IKEA instruction sheet and a reminder that its famous Column Four features will continue to be found on . . . column four. (Whew!) And that wasn’t all: The publisher had written a letter talking about the changes. By the time I hit the editorial page‘s separate piece on the revamp -- which hilariously began, “Please excuse us if we take a moment to mention our make-over” -- I started wondering if this was really the same paper that had spent the last quarter-century thumping the ’60s generation for its self-absorption and self-indulgence.

Although you can‘t properly judge any face-lift until you get used to it, I’m sorry to see the Journal chasing after popularity with lip gloss. It has long been America‘s most rigorously designed (and best-written) daily, and this less stern version feels paradoxically less seductive -- like swapping your favorite dominatrix for the girl next door. The front-page pastels look washed-out, and the airy new editorial page -- denuded of its crisply ruled lines -- seems ready to fly away, which is slightly odd, for the same menagerie of reactionary pit bulls are still barking away on its pages.

By refurbishing itself in this way, the Journal has clearly fired a shot across the bow of The New York Times, against which it is struggling to be the dominant elite newspaper in the national market. Naturally the Times hasn’t stood idle. On April 2, hoping to steal its rival‘s thunder, it unveiled a re-configured national edition that now includes stand-alone “Dining InDining Out” and “House & Home” sections. And even before that, new editor Howell Raines had begun inserting “soft” features -- on Botox, say, or Marshall Faulk -- on its traditionally hard-news front page, thereby challenging the Journal’s Column Four.

The Journal‘s changes were looked at with derisive glee in USA Today by its founder, Al Neuharth, who predicted that they were just the beginning. Next up would be loud red and green boxes. “The still-small headlines and graphics must grow up,” he scolded. This was his way of saying that, to flourish, the Journal and the Times must eventually look as cheesy as his own paper. In fact, the Journal and the Times aspire to be the Gucci of newspapers. As William Powers (no relation) pointed out first in the National Journal, both are obviously targeting those coveted readers who own multiple homes and vacation in the Seychelles -- or at least aspire to. This is an audience that sees no contradiction between getting serious news coverage and being informed about the arts and prerogatives of posh taste. That’s why the Times tells them all about furniture fairs in Milan or treats Michelin superstar Alain Ducasse as house chef (learn to cook rib-eye steaks from the master!). That‘s why the very first “Personal Journal” ran a long, belated article unraveling one of the ur-myths of arriviste culture -- how a select few have managed to go beyond gold, platinum and titanium to receive American Express’ fabled $1,000-a-year Black Card (social climbing has its privileges).

To see the imperialism of what Powers has dubbed “Lifestyle Voyeurism,” you need merely consider the career trajectory of the Times‘ famed political reporter R.W. Apple Jr. Even as his news commentaries have become shameless clock punching -- his piece on the Mideast crisis’ echoes of World War I was an orgy of armchair commonplaces -- he‘ll eagerly jet anywhere to produce belabored pieces on Tiptree marmalade, Sonoma County cheeses, Miami’s best cubano sandwiches. I picture his news editors asking him to cover a serious political story and Apple just chomping away, like the star of a Carl‘s Jr. commercial shot atop Mount Olympus: “Don’t bother me. I‘m eating.”

Although the Journal’s battle with the Times may seem irrelevant in L.A., these papers‘ imperial dreams pose a problem for dailies around the country. Even successful ones such as the Los Angeles Times run the risk of becoming minor league, unable to compete with the big boys when it comes to covering two fronts at once -- the globalized world of news and the ever-expanding universe of consumer consumption. You saw the first evidence of this last week when The New York Times nabbed a record seven Pulitzers (six for 911 coverage) and three other big papers won nearly all the others. Small papers were completely shut out. And why did the N.Y. Times win the 911 sweepstakes? Because it could spend more money on its coverage than anyone else. As the Boston Phoenix’s Dan Kennedy and the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz both noted, newspapering is haunted by the specter of Steinbrennerism. As in pro baseball, only the rich win.

Of course, as the Dodgers constantly demonstrate, money isn’t everything. Vision counts. Back in the ‘80s and ’90s, the L.A. Times scuppered Otis Chandler‘s great dream of being a national paper and settled for being better than the Orange County Register and Daily News. (One of this year’s Pulitzer winners, Barry Bearak of the empurpled prose, had abandoned the then-floundering Times Mirror ship for The New York Times). Although current L.A. Times editor John Carroll has begun turning this around -- even stealing editorial stars from the N.Y. Times -- the paper has a long, difficult road if it‘s not to eventually become an also-ran in what economist Robert H. Frank calls “the winner-take-all society.”

It’s not fanciful to imagine a future in which our newspapers become another staple of our increasingly two-tier society in which the favored send their kids to private schools instead of lousy public ones, buy organic veggies at Bristol Farms instead of Albertson‘s plastic ones, fly business instead of enduring the horrors of coach. In such a scenario, elite Americans will read about the world in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times (depending on their political slant) while the vast majority will read lesser local papers and be excluded from The Conversation.

Then again, being cut out may be a blessing. On last week’s episode of CNBC‘s Wall Street Journal: Editorial Board, Paul Gigot and four board members pondered the 50th anniversary of rock & roll. Sounding like space aliens who’d once caught a few nights of Wolfman Jack on intergalactic radio, the group agreed that rock wasn‘t an altogether bad thing. My favorite Martian was Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Henninger, who looks uncannily like Christian Bale’s American Psycho after he‘s settled into a pompously conformist middle age. When the wooden Henninger solemnly announced that the rock album he’d played most recently was the Rolling Stones‘ first album, his words did a windshield-wiper effect on my ribs. I laughed even harder when he went on to explain that, like everything else in the world, rock music had been damaged by (you guessed it) the ’60s.

Despite the Kama Sutra thrust of its recent make-over, the Journal hasn‘t really changed. When it comes to popular culture, its editors prefer the missionary position.


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