Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
Gay Talese releaesd his masterwork on the history, culture, and inner workings of the New York Times, The Kingdom and the Power, in 1969. It’s the story of a bygone era in journalism, but also more than that. I found this passage particularly curious.
And so what worked in Mississippi worked as well in Manhattan, although the reverse was not so true. The impersonal pushing of the North was out of step with the South; Southerners could not easily accept it: the South was deep-rooted and fixed in its way, as Federal lawmakers would later learn. The South set its own pace and style and stamped its people for a lifetime, and when Northerners went South to live, it stamped them, too. Northerners who settled in the South adopted the regional accent; Southerners who settled in the North did not. [emphasis added]
I found this an interesting observation because it is so contrary to what I see in the present day. It strikes me that people – or at least young people – who move north today do everything in their power to lose their southern accent as quickly as possible. My wife is from Alabama (where Talese attended college, incidentally). Having just returned from a visit there, I can tell you southern accents are alive and well in the South. I great up in rural Southern Indiana with an accent myself. Today, neither of us sounds at all like people with southern roots. I’ve seen this story many times.
And also, when people from the north move south, I see a major effort undertaken to preserve a flat accent in the children. Indeed, we are seeing in places like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville significant upscale districts where large numbers of people have no southern accent. An intern at work a year or so ago was born and raised in Brentwood, Tennessee outside of Nashville, and didn’t have a trace of a southern accent.
We’ve certainly seen since the 1960’s a massive change in the fortunes of the South. The civil rights struggles were still ongoing when Talese wrote his book. Today the South, or at least parts of it, are re-energized and feel confident meeting and competing with the rest of America on its terms.
But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into the south. It seems to me that there has been a significant decline in regional accents and dialects generally in the United States. Perhaps some of this is due to the interstate highway system, which enabled significant mobility around the country and homogenized things a bit. I don’t know. But even within the last 15 years I’ve noticed, for example, a significant decline in the number of people with Hoosier accents on the north side of Indianapolis, especially among younger people.
It is interesting to see the changes in American culture in even a relatively short term. Of course, some things haven’t changed. The Southern style can still be very effective in the north. Let me just say this, do not underestimate someone just because they talk like a good ol’ boy. You might well end up regretting it.
On another topic completely, a lot of what Talese wrote about journalism in the 1960’s as a period of transition is completely relevant today. I will share a few excerpts to demonstrate. The challenges facing the newspaper business are actually longstanding, and clearly the major media companies failed to meet them. Perhaps that bygone era isn’t so bygone at all.
Now the newspaper industry had a serious new threat, television, and [Managing Editor] Catledge knew that the formula that had worked so well [in the past] would require some adjusting. A newspaper could not compete with the speed of television in covering spot news, nor could it match televisions dramatic presentation of a single news spectacle…but [he] was confident that newspapers could bring readers more details and could explain the significance of these details more effectively than could television…Newspaper reporters would now have to dig more deeply into more areas and to inform the public more thoroughly; they could no longer merely report the facts, but they would often have to interpret the meaning behind these facts. The trick was to do this without editorializing.
The [NYT] could no longer financially afford to print lengthy stories about relatively minor news events….The paper was now actually printing fewer columns of news than it had been in the 1920’s and 30’s. And since the end of WWII it had also greatly increased the volume of advertising to a point where it regularly carried more lines of advertising than news….The only what the The Times could both cover the news and pay its bills was to get its reporters to say more in less space, as the tabloid men from the New York Daily News had been doing so well for years
It had become one of the corporate jokes within The Times that most of the money earned did not come from publishing the greatest newspaper in the world but from the 42 percent interest that Ochs had bought in 1926 in a paper-making mill in Canada – The Times made more money producing paper without words than paper with words.
Only The Times and two tabloids, the morning News and the evening Post, would remain in a city than in 1900 had sixteen dailies, and than in 1930 had a dozen…Of the New York dailies, only The Times and the News [had been] consistent money makers; the others survived on subsidies from newspaper chains or from individual owners whose wealth was derived from outside sources.
The Times would have to accept the computer. The computer was still a relatively controversial subject at The Times, but now in Sulzberger’s first year as publisher he began to prepare the institution for its introduction. Timesmen would have to overcome their aversions and romantic notions about the newspaper business.
Plus ça change….