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Unwitting Media Mega-Players and the Red State Consumers Who Support Them
Why media consumption in suburban Arkansas is increasingly more important than media consumption in the big city.- October 10, 2005
The New York Times' former Boldfaced Names columnist Joyce Wadler frequently peppered her columns with asides to "J-School Young'un," a fictional would-be journalist to whom she would routinely dispense advice. We're going to borrow J-School Young'un for a moment and make the following modest proposal: if you want to learn about the nuts and bolts of the media business---if you fancy yourself more a Roger Ailes or Martha Stewart or Arthur Sulzberger than a Sy Hersh or Bob Woodward---put down those internship listings right now, pull out a map of the United States, and throw a dart at it, preferably somewhere in the direction of the expansive middle. In all likelihood, you're going to hit a town---or something resembling a town---with a population of less than 10,000 people. Then, via plane, train or automobile, transport yourself to wherever the dart landed and spend a week or two in the chain grocery stores and Walmarts that invariably crop up even in the middle of what technically constitutes "nowhere" and make a running list of what types of media---books, magazines, DVDs, etc---people are buying. Then get out the map again, repeat the dart throwing and transport yourself elsewhere. Do this six or seven times over the course of a summer. We call it "the Do-It-Yourself 'Simple Life' Media Internship."
We'll admit that it's not very sexy, but it's important to understand how most of the country consumes media, especially if you happen to live in an urban area where everyone has an Amazon account, where you can buy another country's version of Vogue off the newsstand and where TiVo is considered a basic necessity. Why? Because the companies that provide distribution for---and target---that big, expansive middle-of-nowhere market are the ones that are, by virtue of their reach and economic power, changing the media industry and as a result, shifting the ideological lines that traditionally shape it.
If, for example, J-School Young'un, you ever decide to run a media-related website---one that, say, has a media news feed on the homepage that picks up media-related stories and opinion columns (as a "friend of ours" does, cough, cough)---you'll find that the bulk of your hate mail comes in two flavors: hate mail from people who think the media newsfeed is "too liberal" and hate mail from people who think the media news feed is "too conservative." They're talking about exactly the same newsfeed on exactly the same day, of course, but perceived bias is open to interpretation and on the red-blue ideological continuum, "agnostic purple" is, according to your readers, a mythological quality, the credible existence of which falls somewhere between that of unicorns and the Tooth Fairy.
That said, a few facts are worth noting, if only anecdotally: mediabistro's readership is more New York-centric than Anywhere Else-centric, and primarily so because most major media companies are headquartered here in Manhattan. If one assumes that New Yorkers tend to be liberal it naturally follows that most media professionals working in New York (and most media professionals in general, by extension) are probably liberal. I'm not going to stretch the Venn diagram overlap so far as to imply that the media---The Royal Media, that is---is categorically so, but let's just say the "Liberal Media" stereotype is not wholly without a demographic basis.
But (but!) here's the rub: Red state (and by implication, conservative) consumer power is increasingly paying the bills for the industry. Need proof? I have three
words proper nouns for you: Wal-mart, Barnes & Noble and Oprah.
In Wetumpka, Alabama (population 5,726) there's really only one place where you can buy books if you're not willing to hop in your car and drive 45 minutes to the nearest bookstore: Wal-mart. If you want magazines, you're additionally helped by a handful of grocery store chains that stock Hearst and Condé Nast women's magazines, Vanity Fair (or is that redundant?), Time, Newsweek and an array of celebrity tabloids by the cash registers.
But really, your best bet is Wal-mart.
Industry estimates put Wal-mart's share of the magazine market at 15% so when the chain store behemoth pulled Maxim, FHM and Stuff from its shelves a few years ago, so as not to offend the sensibilities of its customers, it won them praise from Christian conservatives and no doubt took a healthy bite out of Felix Dennis's top line.
The chain store's ability to move books across checkout counters is also formidable. Nielsen BookScan, which monitors book buys at point-of-sale only covers about 65% of the market and while it's arguably the best measurement tool the industry has, its lack of information for Walmart and [the related] Sam's Clubs is a major data hole. It might not be as much of a problem if Bookscan results were also representative of buying patterns exhibited by Wal-Mart customers. But that may not be the case.
From the Book Standard's Non-Fiction Bestseller List for last week: (The Book Standard uses Bookscan data.)
A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, James Frey (Anchor, Paperback, 0307276902) 2. NATURAL CURES "THEY" DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, Kevin Trudeau (Alliance Publishing, Hardcover, 0975599518) 3. WHY DO MEN HAVE NIPPLES?, Mark Leyner, Billy Goldberg, M.D. (Three Rivers Press, Paperback, 1400082315) 4. THE WORLD IS FLAT, Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Hardcover, 0374292884) 5. YOU: THE OWNER'S MANUAL, Michael F. Roizen, M.D.; Mehmet Oz, M.D. (HarperResource, Hardcover, 0060765313)
Wal-mart's Top Five Best Sellers (from Walmart.com) 1. YOU: THE OWNER'S MANUAL: An Insider's Guide to the Body That Will Make You Healthier and Younger, Leyner, Mark 2. NATURAL CURES "THEY" DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT Trudeau, Kevin 3. THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE: What on Earth Am I Here For? Warren, Rick 4. THE GAME: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists - Strauss, Neil 5. A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES - Gabaldon, Diana
Even with the distinct possibility that what Wal-mart customers are ordering online differs from what they're buying in stores, it's clear that the inspirational selections (Rick Warren) are probably more Wal-mart-appropriate than, say, Thomas Friedman. And for what it's worth, when I was there several months ago, the bricks-and-mortar version in Wetumpka leaned heavily in that direction, with Bibles and Christian devotional books available in a variety of translations and themes.
There's nothing more mom-and-apple-pie in 2005 than Oprah Winfrey (except perhaps Martha Stewart, but that's another column entirely). She's a tremendous business success story, a likeable celebrity and a motherly sympathetic ear to her guests and audience, even when they jump on her couch and declare their love for Katie Holmes in a slightly disturbing fashion.
But no one loves Oprah more than a publisher with a book to sell. Just ask Anchor Books, which just re-issued the paperback for James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, complete with an "Oprah's pick" badge on the front. The book skyrocketed up the bestseller lists for the second time in two years. And this after months of putting dead authors on the bestseller lists for the first time in decades.
And consider Oprah's audience. Barring the compulsive TiVo owner, it consists mostly of people who are able to watch TV in the early afternoon, and given the content, those people are mostly women. (This week's segments: Uma Thurman on love and marriage, catching child molesters and "Are You Wearing the Right Bra?") Women, incidentally, buy more books than men and one suspects that Oprah has only increased the margin.
Barnes & Noble
The most important publishing person you've never heard of is Sessalee Hensley, the chief fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. Unless, of course, you actually work in book publishing, in which case, you're absentmindedly scrawling her name on errant scraps of paper and praying to the distribution gods that she waves her magic wand over your latest project, stacking it in piles of 200 next to the front door at every store from Bakersfield to Boston.
If Oprah Winfrey drives people into bookstores, Hensley's responsible for making sure James Frey's second book is also available---you know, while they're at it.
But lest you think Hensley's buying for the urban intellectual with an apartment made out of book shelves, the sheer ubiquity of Barnes & Noble (and chains like Borders) in places where indie stores would never survive (and not just because of Barnes & Noble) has made regular book-buying more accessible for the average American. Brick and mortar stores may be less important than they once were, thanks to the Internet, but inasmuch as they are, B&N and its ability to market a wide variety of books to mass audiences has turned it into more than simply a point-of-sale for whatever's coming out of New York. And that's not even counting what Barnes & Noble does for other types of media, like magazine, music and DVD sales.
Realizing, perhaps, their own power to move media and to tap into a Middle American consumer base, all three examples have taken steps toward becoming full blown publishers themselves. Oprah has an eponymous magazine, Barnes & Noble reprints classics under its own brand and Walmart exclusively sells All You magazine. Which means it's only a matter of time until Oprah has her own fiction imprint, Wal-mart's printing Sam's Club branded Bibles and the Barnes & Noble best-seller list is more widely-read than that of the New York Times.
Elizabeth Spiers is the editor in chief of mediabistro.com
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