Gilded ink

At the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, conspicuous consumption is a highly profitable commodity.


David Carr
September 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Late '90s America is so jam-packed with rich people that advertisers are
scrambling to find new ways to perform cash-ectomies on them. Glossy magazines
like Vanity Fair and In Style, both setting the mailbox to groaning with their
phonebook girth, are no longer enough. In an infinitely expanding economy rife
with stupid money, companies that make high-end goods -- and the ad agencies who
pimp them -- have to innovate.

In this digital age, who would have thought that a major beneficiary of the
heedless needs of the newest of the nouveau riche would be venerable newsprint?

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For decades, the glossies -- the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and her ugly
sisters -- owned the franchise for collecting money from the purveyors of the
stylish and vestigial; newspapers had to content themselves with real estate
voyeurism as an adjunct to their classifieds. Of course, there was a time when
dailies dipped into glossy pretension with their Sunday magazines, but these have
gradually attenuated as the mega-spending department stores have increasingly
favored their own glossified inserts. Even the vaunted Sunday New York Times Magazine is
looking a little anorexic, pummeled by the competition from all corners of the
mag world.

But now the Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal and the New York Times' Sunday
Styles section have suddenly become less traditional newspaper sections than
broadsheet catalogs, ink-stained bastions of yuppie porn configured to create
desire.

Newsprint has a peculiar attribute: While the current crop of men's and
women's magazines will clearly do anything to push product, there is an
assumption that staid old print is concerned with higher, calmer matters. Like
the cheaply printed fliers for the cheaply priced hardware store, the medium
offers a message of reassurance. Each week, both papers set out in a slatternly
quest to find ever more expensive ways of getting married, mowing the lawn, or
putting things in your pie-hole. Only the Journal and the Times have the robust
demographics to make this gussied-up version of a blue-collar medium hum
like a $490 electric razor.

These daily mitzvahs for the recently wealthy are themselves fat and happy. The
Times stumbled hard with the launch of a daily Styles section a few years back,
but found its stride with daily consumer sections about gadgets, food and
housewares. WSJ's Weekend Journal, a Friday sonnet to the art of avarice launched
back in March 1998, is a massively successful extension of the Journal brand.
According to the July 12 Media Industry Newsletter, second-year revenues at
Weekend Journal section will total $34 million, 70 percent over the previous year
and far ahead of projections.

"Certain advertisers have always loved our demographic, but we didn't have the
right environment for them. Weekend Journal is right for a lot of these guys. And
on the reader's side, I think it's clear we are meeting an important need, which
is what drives advertising," says Richard Tofel, vice president of corporate
communications for Dow Jones and Co., which publishes the Journal.

Like power boats that seat only two people while costing more than most houses,
the newly enriched sections of this grubby medium offer
daily iterations of how many clueless knuckleheads have found themselves in
receipt of tall money that they have no idea what to do with. Forget the
millennium, isn't one of the surest signs of the apocalypse that Armani and Gucci
are buying big girly ads to cuddle up betwixt the gray pinstripes of Journal
text?

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"As a reader, I am thrilled to see [those ads]," says Joanne Lipman, Weekend
editor. "I think it adds a great deal to the paper. Our letters suggest, and this
is purely anecdotal, that Weekend is a family read, passed around by family
members. In some instances, it's replacing their weekend metro paper, while
others compare it to a magazine."

That sort of demographic-stretching is visible in "The Thomas Crown Affair," in
which a post-coital Pierce Brosnan reads the "guy" sections of the Journal while a
still-hungry Rene Russo combs Weekend Journal in pursuit of further satisfaction.
The semiotics of the scene speak volumes.

Lipman says it's dumb to suggest that Journal is simply pandering to the
basest instincts of its readers.

"Weekend Journal represents a natural evolution of where the Journal has been
going for the past 10 to 15 years. The line between business life and personal
life has become blurred, and I think that we understand the interplay between
business and culture. The impetus for our section is appealing to reader's minds,
not just their pocketbooks. Some of our readers are very successful and have done
very well for themselves, but they are more than the sum of their pocketbooks."

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Lipman emphasizes that the journalistic standards that made the Journal a
reliable brand in the first place are firmly in place at Weekend, but how
rigorous can you be when you are writing about overpriced antique arcade games?

Newspaper sections didn't always serve as obeisant Baedekers for yuppie scum.
It used to be that if you wanted to skim expensive tchotchkes, you'd spend the time
on the margins of the New Yorker magazine, finding both basic and frivolous goods
at impossible prices. Now, large parts of two of the nation's biggest papers are devoted to
hat lore. Weekend Journal has a column on catalogs, meta-journalism for a
meta-consumeristic age. Do we really need instruction in how we should look at
the catalogs that come flying into our mailbox?

That's not the point, as managing editor Paul R. Steiger un-self-conciously points
out in his Weekend Journal review of "Selling Dreams: How to Make Any Product
Irresistible," written by the CEO of Ferrari's North American unit.

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"You must own the customer, make him aspire to possess your product until he has
it, and immediately want the next version after he does," says Steiger,
paraphrasing the author. And there's nothing like the name of a serious publication and
some august bylines to legitimize the fetishization of product. Both the Journal
and the Times suggest over and over that it's OK to sink your net worth into
pointless doodads, as long as the doodads are quality.

Even when you drift out of the didactic place-your-money-here categories, the aroma of profligate commodification lingers -- both papers get
damp panties in search of ever more expensive ways to engage basic human endeavors. In a recent Sunday Styles piece about "destination weddings," it was suggested that if you
are in the marrying way, you might want to pick some difficult, hard-to-access
locale -- not because you need to, but because you can.

To hell with mom and dad's country club -- why not, ah, Portugal? Amid the
all-night flamenco parties and the ponies with hydrangeas woven into their manes
-- did I mention the Chateau Lafite hand-carried by some of the vineyard's family
members making the scene? -- the reporter and the newly betrothed conspire to
conjure fabulousness with smutty glee.

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"The couple, both New Yorkers, have no family in Portugal, nor have they ever
lived there; they simply wanted an unusual and exotic location, and in this day
of casual jet travel -- not to mention a galloping economy -- the extravagance of
going to Europe for a long-weekend wedding did not seem far-fetched," wrote
Monique P. Yazigi in the Times on July 11. "Who wants to go to another wedding at
the Pierre?" said the groom.

The answer is everybody else on the planet, except the swells who have been there
a jillion times. For that .0001 percent of the population, domestic
manifestations of out-of-hand wealth provoke a Gatsby-like shrug and a round of
so-what's-next. That crowd alone, of course, wouldn't be enough to fund a daily
newspaper section, but there's an army of readers who don't mind coveting someone
else's fortune. (If more readers lingered over the pictures in the Weddings
feature at the back of the section, they might think twice about the pursuit of
wealth -- rich people generally have very ugly children and they grow up to marry
other people's ugly children.)

The wealthy will always be with us, but they seem more out of hand than Internet
IPOs. Turns out it's a tough time to have money coming out your ass. Where else
to stuff it?

"I think people in high society get very bored. In order to challenge them and
make things very special and spectacular, it takes bringing them to a completely
new environment in order to blow their minds," Polly Onet told Yazigi. She's a
party planner, part of a whole class of pilot fish who live on the luxurious
underbelly of the bored rich and show up constantly in the Times.

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In the same issue, there seemed to be evidence that the Times wasn't always on
its gilded horse: a feature about the guy who started a thrifting magazine called
Cheap Date. But the magazine director didn't come by bargain-hunting honestly.
Marlon Richards, it turns out, is the son of Keith Richards, whose annual earnings have
outstripped his habit for decades. The wannabe thrifters at the launch party
were variously described as: "the daughter of Yves Saint Larent's muse," a
Rothschild from the banking family, the bassist for Nancy Boy, a gaggle of
models and the son of a guy who loans his Martha's Vineyard property to the
Clintons when they are in the neighborhood. "Do we have to dress cheap?" asked
Richards' wife before they went to the launch party. Of course not, silly, you're rich.

In addition to the human glitz, the Times objectifies everything in sight, a
practice that makes for some nice synergies. On July 11, Sunday Styles ran
something about how HBO's "Sex in the City" is taking both the city and the
provinces by storm; the following Sunday, they wrote -- in the shopping
column Pulse -- about how the necklaces Sarah Jessica Parker wears are flying off the
shelves. It's a trend loop that always ends in a price tag. In Style over
Substance, Frank Decaro etched the conundrum without a trace of irony. "Faced
with a glut of mass promotion and mass consumption, personal taste becomes the
life lifesaver, but it's harder and harder to chart your own course." Thank God
the Times is there so I can become the kind of rugged shopper-individualist who
will keep the paper knee-deep in Yves Saint Laurent ads.

All of these captions to consumerism require more dollar signs than periods,
and become a breathless run-on of price tags, price points and priceless moments.

The Times has made a week of it, with Dining Out, Circuits and House and
Home et al. Gadgets, gewgaws and the people that lust after them have become the
subject of legitimate editorial inquiry. The journalism that results doesn't ever
get to some of the more important questions -- like, say, who needs all this crap,
or whether thing-lust will be the kindling that sets our version of Rome afire
long after the blazing bull market dies out.

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Jyll Holzman, senior vice president of advertising at the New York Times, says
that advertising growth at the paper in the Going-Going '90s has been
"explosive." After adding color and articulating more consumer-driven sections,
the Times has given glossier publications a run for all the money.

"We are truly a national newspaper. We have opened 150 markets for home delivery
and we are more than competitive with many magazines in terms of reaching a
desirable demographic. And we've had no trouble articulating that to the
advertisers," she says.

By sanctifying desire with faux coverage, the readers of these moneyed sections
can shop guilt-free just inches away. The Times' Sunday Pulse shopping column
nakedly revels in an age when the credit-card limit never comes into view. Why
have just have a cell phone? Why not shop for a stylish replacement frame replete
with antenna caps -- just 10 minutes of installation and you can make a
statement, not just a phone call. You can always call your dog, according
to the adjoining item on July 25. Forty-two bucks gets your dog a night at
Paws Inn, where dogs romp freely with other dogs, leap on the furniture, watch
television, even take phone calls. When you're actually out walking Fifi, you can depend on the Watcher ($9), a rear-view bracelet that helps the wearer spot
those lurking paparazzi in time to duck for shelter. And when you're worn out
running from all those fans, there's always Vinotherapie treatment, which
includes a barrel bath with fresh grape seed extracts, merlot wraps and
sauvignon-oil massages, at some impossibly fabulous vineyard in France.

Moral: Even if a paparazzi wouldn't shoot you if you punched him in the nose, you
can still act like a celebrity, and so can your dog.

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At Weekend Journal, all goods are equal. A refer down the side of the July 30
editions tugs you inside to find the "best" Adirondack chair, the "best" artist
of the century and the "best" deal on a Porsche Boxster, and to watch as novelist Tama
Janowitz searches for the "best" husband. Would you be surprised to learn that
his net worth plays a significant role in his qualitative rating? Acquisition
finds full throat in "Object of the Week": One week it's a pricey painted rarity
from the Hudson River School and the next, a vintage Good Humor truck. Who cares
if it's gauche or glorious -- if someone else wants it, you should want it too.

Everything is for sale: small-town life, faucets, a CD
player for your shower and the deep blue sea (filmed and actual). And just in
case the plethora of hard and soft goods gets your heart racing, you can track it
with the electronic stethoscope. And there's wine. Wine to bath in, travel to, sniff,
deconstruct and, sometimes, actually drink. If some sassy little number turns the
heads of the Journal's cuddly wine enthusiasts, just hop over to the adjoining ad and order from the Virtual Vineyard.

"What these two papers are doing is lending their greatest asset -- journalistic
credibility -- to the most profitable operation short of printing money that their
industry can imagine," says Tom Frank, editor of the Baffler. "This is where the
payoff comes for all of those years of reputation building and
objectivity-inspired hair-splitting: Dump it all for a Porsche Boxster!"

Internet marketeers like Amazon and Tower have been accused of blurring the lines
between what constitutes an ad and what constitutes editorial, but other than
sectional conceits and a few column borders, the Journal and the Times present
one seamless buy-o-sphere. These aren't leisure sections, they are newsprint
Brookstones where customers -- there are no readers here -- browse from kiosk to
kiosk for that one special something that will make them all feel special in
exactly the same way.

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David Carr

David Carr is editor of Washington City Paper, an alternative newspaper owned by the Chicago Reader, which has competed with Leonard Stern to buy weekly newspapers. He has no stock options that he is aware of.

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