Doug McLennan is a cultural critic and host of ArtsJournal, the best digest of national and international arts news. For all the bloggers he has on that website (Terry Teachout, Tyler Green, Doug Ramsey, Lee Rosenbaum, Greg Sandow), he himself doesn’t do much blogging. When he does, it’s usually about the fragmentation of mass media. Today is the first of what looks like a series of posts on Mass Culture. Doug takes pains to point out that this isn’t some kind of high/low debate. He’s no Dwight Mcdonald or Theodor Adorno.

Instead, Doug’s focus is defining the notion of “mass culture” and examining how we communicate across a multiplicity of subcultures. Media technology has changed drastically in just two years (since YouTube and MySpace in 2005), as have consumer tastes (thanks to YouTube and MySpace). No more obvious an example of this is the fractured music industry, which, it has been reported many, many times this year, lost some 20 percent of its sales in the first quarter of 2007. And it’s only getting worse.

It’s getting worse for daily newspapers, too. The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations analysis reported on Nov. 5 a nearly 3 percent across the board decline in circulation among the top 10 newspapers. Some papers are bleeding badly: The Denver Post saw declines at 10 percent. Part of the reason is that newspaper still maintain a mass media and mass culture mindset: aiming for the largest number of people. In other words, the lowest common denominator. Here’s Doug:

If the average reading level is eighth grade, in a mass-culture model you want to write to that level and hope you capture the largest demographic segment. And you hope that those below the level will give you a chance. In fact, you aggressively court this group by trying to prove your accessibility. As for the group reading above the level: your strategy for success is “where else are they going to go?” Your paper is probably the only/best/major source of news in your community.

What’s interesting, at least to me, is that newspaper haven’t always bought into that mass culture mindset, according to Doug. Historically, they have been a hodgepodge of stuff: comics, classifieds, crossword puzzle, opinion, columns, sports, news and whatever. All in one place, readers found niche after niche of stuff to engage them, no matter what you’re taste. Somewhere along the way, Doug says (and I would wager this accelerated with the passing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996), newspaper forgot about their niche-oriented past and move toward a mass future.

Here’s Doug again:

… [S]omewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn’t specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.

The very things you see newspapers doing to try to bring in new readers – Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light – are the things that while they might have worked 20 years ago, don’t today. That’s because the celebutantes get better dish at TMZ and the Live at 5 guys do better fire and missing kids.

On websites, the celeb stuff gets more traffic, true, but these are “drive-by” clicks that don’t build a readership. Not that there shouldn’t be celebs in a newspaper, but they’re not the solution to building a bigger audience.