This article was also published in The Water Tower.
Last month’s biggest TV tearjerker came from Jon Stewart, who announced he’d be leaving The Daily Show after 17 years. His Comedy Central departure shouldn’t have come as much of a shock: Stewart’s signing off after the recent end of The Colbert Report (essentially Stewart’s bastard child), the installation of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore to take Colbert’s place, and the release of Rosewater, a chronicle of an Iranian journalist’s imprisonment, written and directed by Stewart. Still, even though we’ve got at least a few months of The Daily Show left, it tugs at many hearts.
Stewart’s tenure spanned a period of media more tumultuous and transformative than all that came before it. Cable was on top in 1997, but began 2015 beaten and battered; Stewart rode the wave. The Daily Show and later the Report rose to two million nightly viewers, just as major news shows on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC plummeted enough to make Comedy Central competitive.
But now, with so many recent goodbyes—including John Oliver, now reaching the high point of his career on HBO’s Last Week Tonight—Comedy Central is scrambling to keep its edge.
Here’s the key question, not just for Comedy Central but for news outlets everywhere: how do we keep the kids?
They mean us. Yes, us students, us Millennials, us Young and Aspiring Adults; we matter! We have power as consumers of media to decide its direction, be that gritty integrity, or bawdy buffoonery, or both, or neither. Media strategists are looking to us for what will characterize 21st century media. We can decide with our eyes.
This is not to say that we as media consumers are not vulnerable to media manipulation; we absolutely are. But as young people, it is our inextricable oddity that makes marketing ideas to us an unpredictable task. Kids are weird and like weird things. Therein lies the power of the youth.
Here are the most important points for forward-thinking media producers to know about young America: we’re plugged-in, diverse, and self-conscious.
First, we youth are some online, web-surfin’ maniacs. This is no mystery: laptops, tablets, smartphones, Netflix, everywhere, and we’re still in the early stages of the Internet of Things, the smart-ification of everything. The internet has not only enabled new media, but also consolidated old forms of media. When was the last time you saw anything on cable TV except the Super Bowl and Wolf Blitzer? (And, of course, Stewart and Colbert?)
This isn’t just a simple change in the tech we use, it is an amplification of the ways and places we consume media. Now, not even the Five D’s of Dodgeball can keep cyber-crap from colliding with you. Modern tech has turned media into a competition for who can smack consumers in the face the quickest. Quality won’t win unless it sets the stage for its own going-viral.
Second, we youth are diverse, or we like talking about diversity more than ever. Increasingly, both alternative and mainstream media sources tout feminism and multiculturalism and lash out at those who don’t. The internet has provided a particularly divided, persistent, and inconclusive debate about diversity. Yet the newfound near-ubiquity of diversity discourse has forced media outlets old and new at least to open their doors and minds to diversity (some more than others) and de-glorify the old white guy.
For some, this means letting non-white people read the newscast in the tone of voice institutionalized by the formerly all-white media, as on CNN or NPR. (Still pretty colorless over at Fox.) But ideally, a youth-led push for diversity in media should bring about journalists, stories, and ideologies that better reflect the United States’ (and world’s) true population. Outlets like VICE, Slate, and, even more than before, The New York Times, have all made conscious efforts to better represent the civilians affected by major news events, whose voices often go unheard. The same goes for Nicholas Kristof’s investigative journalism show A Path Appears, for Jose Antonio Vargas’s (upcoming) multimedia identity politics site #EmergingUS, and a million Kickstarter campaigns.
However, despite these promising new media trends, popular discussions of true diversity usually fall short of total acceptance, so consumers settle for an illusion of diversity, a heterogeneity only allowed by a consensus on the limits of political action and attention. In other words, the current prevailing definition of diversity is an assortment of non-white, non-male people now acknowledged by the ruling institutions that long ignored them; they are only acknowledged because they have joined the consensus of political-ideological rule, and they are now branded as representatives of their identity groups. This consensus controls all institutions that get reported on, from national and international politics to the entertainment industry; by extension, it governs the media describing these institutions, and the minds that read it.
Third—and crucially—we youth are insecure. Young people mastered the web first and saw traditional cable or print outlets as behind the times. Feeling small and insignificant yet at the same time entitled, youth still seek online media and flex their technological endowments as a means of exerting their voice, their authority, and, the Millennials’ favorite social value, their individuality.
Our focus on individuality as a trait to be cultivated and propagated has created an economy of individuality, which sustains and relies on a market of infinite opinions to be purported, adopted and/or tweeted. Driven by insecurity, the individuality obsession gave birth to countless new forms of media—blogs, vlogs, podcasts, profile pages, posts, private messages, comments, Tweets, Vines, Snapchats, infographics, nudies—that have permanently blurred formal media distinctions and theoretically brought individuals and media organizations to an equal plane.
But since we youth stifled our insecurities by becoming empowered individuals, the most successful media outlets will not only profit by creating media we feel cool and comfortable posting to our Walls, but they will use subliminally disempowering media (hint: it’s already all around you) to fuel our insecurities and perpetuate the economy of individuality.
There it is, kids: news outlets will give us cool, web-friendly media diverse enough that we feel like progress is made, but not diverse enough to break the institutional consensus, seriously challenge the system, and estrange our friends, employers, and whomever else might be looking at our profiles. God forbid.
No one liked those articles I posted about racism at the Oscars. Next time I’ll need to #RememberTheConsensus.