BY MATTHEW PARSONS
If you’re a writer at a media startup like WORST—a writer like me—there are a few big questions that you need to ask yourself before plunging into business. For instance: What kind of content do you want to produce? How are you going to make money? Would your time be better spent studying for the LSAT?
Here’s another question: who’s the audience? This one’s really important to have answered, because it dictates how you need to write.
Are you going for a niche market? It certainly has its advantages. If you’re writing for a smaller audience that’s deeply engaged with a particular topic, you have a certain amount of leeway to skip the boring bits of the conversation and get straight to the analysis.
Or, are you shooting for the elusive “general audience?” If so, you’ve got lots of explaining to do.
On one side of the spectrum, you’ve got the New York Times, which everybody reads, so it has to uphold a certain standard of general interest. On the other side, I suppose you’ve got my blog, which nobody reads, so I write whatever the hell I want and only when I feel like it (which is, in turn, almost certainly why nobody reads it.)
Let’s take a closer look at a few approaches from across this range. We all know what a “general interest” publication looks like, so I’m not going to go into detail on those. Suffice it to say, there are lots of different ways to tackle “general interest.” Here’s one. Here’s another. And here’s a different kind of one. Let’s leave it at that.
I don’t mean to be flippant about this. I deeply admire this kind of publication in principle, and I’m convinced that people who can write about something complicated and make it accessible without oversimplifying are the best writers in the world. I’m actually not sure how my life would work if people didn’t do this kind of writing.
But the kind of writing that I really, really like tends not to show up in those publications. The writing that I really gulp down is written by people who are interested in the things that I am, for people who are interested in the things that I am (remember how the first book I read when I graduated from my master’s program was a book about Arnold Schoenberg? I got more invested in that than in any Walrus article I’ve ever read.).
My reading material of choice, lately, is a blog by Dr. Philip Sandifer, which is predominantly about the cult (and increasingly non-cult) television show, Doctor Who. He has made it his mission in life to deconstruct the entire show, episode by episode, with the kind of postmodern flair that you don’t see in magazines. If you’re going to get anything out of Sandifer’s writing, you need to have at least seen the episode of Doctor Who in question, and you should preferably have a passing knowledge of the show’s entire fifty-year history. A basic familiarity with alchemy, occultism, and William Blake is also an asset, but you can usually get by on what you’ve picked up from his previous blog entries.
All of which is to say: this is a niche product, if ever there was one.
But enough people are, as Sandifer writes, “insane enough to want to read ten thousand words a week about postmodernism and twentieth-century British sci-fi television” that he’s able to nab five thousand readers per post, and he’s gained an enviable stature within his niche community. This is, by any reasonable metric, success. But it isn’t necessarily the kind of success that you want, especially if you’re writing for a publication with a staff of more than one.
There is, of course, a middle ground. And it is capably exemplified by my personal go-to source for accessible cultural criticism: The Onion‘s AV Club. Most of what goes up on the AV Club doesn’t require any specific prior knowledge, and the writers don’t deliberately make things difficult for their readers (like Sandifer does in some of his best posts).
But if I showed this article to my mom, she would be completely lost. The opening line of this one would leave her baffled. And the first paragraph of this one would make perfect sense to her, but in a way that’s completely wrong. Evidently, then, the AV Club has not conceived of their audience as including my mom.
So this is neither “general interest,” nor Sandifer-niche. You aren’t expected to be well-versed in much of anything, really; but you are expected to have a certain level of contemporary cultural awareness, if you’re going to get the jokes and appreciate the poignancy of some of the reviews.
With this approach, the AV Club’s writers can simply trust their readers to understand the cultural context of their writing, without making it explicit. This allows them to skip the boring bits and get straight to the analysis, which, while often excellent, seldom reaches Phil Sandifer levels of incisiveness.
I would like to think that this approach is within our grasp at WORST. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but I don’t think we should feel obligated to play to the largest possible audience. It’s not a cop-out if it’s a conscious choice.
At the same time, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of self-indulgence. I, for one, have a habit of not thinking about the audience at all when I write, and that’s not a conscious choice. It’s just shitty writing. There’s a line.
Anyway, since you’ve read this entire piece, I sincerely hope that you, as a valued member of the audience, have felt neither confused nor condescended to during the course of your reading. “Who’s the audience?” is a question that I’m going to keep asking myself. And I hope the answer continues to be “somebody.” ♦
Image via Google Cultural Institute