Art Reflects Life

By | Wednesday, April 01, 2009 1 comment
So, I'm sure you've heard something about the Brenda Starr losing her job, right? A healthy dose of realism on the state of journalism supposedly.

I've never read Brenda Starr with anything approaching regularity, but I've done a quick scan of the past week or two's strips out of curiosity. What struck me wasn't so much that the story is bad per se or overly ham-fisted or anything but, rather, how much phenomenally better the exact same story was handled in Doonesbury over six months ago...
Not only did Rick Redfern's job loss flow more organically, but it also struck me as a more realistic portrayal. Which should strike everyone as all the more impressive because Doonesbury is a humor strip, and not just a straight drama like Brenda Starr. So why is Starr's job loss garnering more attention? I can actually think of several reasons.
  • Garry Trudeau had just led something of a comic strip coup by turning in a week's worth of strips citing Obama winning the election a week before it had taken place. Reporters may have gotten tired of giving him the spotlight.
  • Trudeau has spent over three decades specifically commenting and reflecting on the current events of the day. That he did so here was not unusual. Brenda Starr, by contrast, isn't exactly known for being topical.
  • The newspaper industry on the whole has been sliding downhill a lot farther and faster since the Doonesbury story. Trudeau was simply a little too far ahead of the curve on this one.
  • Not to mention that their press syndicate, Universal, chose to send out press releases about Brenda Starr and not about Doonesbury.

Now, personally, I think the complaints around Brenda Starr aren't really warranted. I certainly don't find it a particularly engaging storyline, and I don't think it's very well executed. (Tom Spurgeon likened it to a bad remake of Sanford & Son starring Cedric the Entertainer and Dule Hill in the title roles.) But with all due respect to writer Mary Schmich and illustrator June Brigman, isn't it pretty much the calibre of story that's been part and parcel to Brenda Starr for years? I mean, I thought it had already been canceled for several years when Brooke Shields starred as the heroine in a 1989 movie. I only realized it hadn't been retired when I started looking to read online comics in earnest back in 2007.

There's certainly the argument that it's not so much the storyline itself that people find grating, but the media hoopla surrounding it. And I can't really fault that thinking too much, other than that's nothing new. Clearly, Universal Press Syndicate sent out press releases and such to a number of media outlets regarding the Brenda Starr "event" and the press dutifully reported on it with no real sense of significance. Haven't Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert spent a good portion of the past decade repeatedly fileting news outlets for doing exactly that? They tended to focus on the absurd press releases from the White House, but this situation isn't really any different. A press release goes out, and it gets picked up and replayed as news, regardless of it's actual newsworthiness.

This, of course, is why mass media is dying. There are so many outlets now clamoring for content, that they're willing to take ANYTHING just to fill up space. I mean, the network formally known as Sci-Fi has certainly gone way beyond their namesake, as has the Cartoon Network. (And it's not a new trend, I might add -- MTV, anyone?) What people seem unable to grasp is that you can't broadcast to a diverse group and expect them to welcome you with open arms -- not when they can find narrowcasters who are targeting specific niches to which they belong. Not when you can go online and pick EXACTLY what you want to read/see/hear, without being bothered with useless (to you) clutter.

You talk to any professional marketers and mention the idea of mass mailings, and they'll laugh in your face. There's no such thing as "mass marketing" any more. You may as well light a match to your wallet. You need to target a select group to reach your audience. Maybe that's based on gender or geographic location or shoe size or whatever, but you simply CANNOT afford to target everyone. Everyone does not want your product or service, plain and simple. You need to first identify who your potential market is, and then target them.

A lot of people, I'm sure, don't like Doonesbury. I'm sure some people find his politics too far to the left. I expect others don't get his humor at all. Maybe some people just don't like his style of drawing. But Trudeau isn't catering to them. He's not writing to the masses; he's writing to whatever people fit his ideal demographic. (Although, I suspect he's more just writing for himself.)

Brenda Starr isn't catering to the masses, either, I don't think. I'm pretty sure Schmich and Brigman aren't expecting folks like me to read it. But, for whatever reason, Universal seems to think it is for everyone. They're sending out press releases thinking Starr can appeal to everyone, and far too many media outlets either agree or (more likely) don't put any thought into it. That's fundamentally a strategic error, based on 50+ year old models of mass communications. And if you either don't get how mass communications are effectively extinct or haven't given it any thought, then there's no amount of changing tactics (like laying off workers or simply printing on a weekly basis) that will keep a company afloat.

I'm not trying to be overly negative here. I don't particularly wish for newspapers to go away. I'm just saying that the rules of the game have categorically changed, and I'm seeing a lot of people who either aren't willing or able to accept that. It's not the media that's dying, it's mass media that's dead.

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Anonymous said...

Guess you didn't read that news release carefully enough. Universal Press Syndicate does not syndicate "Brenda Starr." We do syndicate "Doonesbury."