The Golden Herd

In the last week, two of the nation's most influential daily newspapers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, have unveiled changes in the way they present the news to their national audiences. The Journal debuted its first major design overhaul in 60 years, including a revamping of its classic front page and the addition of a new thrice-weekly section called Personal Journal. The Times brought out a new Friday section called Escapes, and expanded its national edition by adding three sections—The Arts; Dining In, Dining Out; and House & Home—that are already fixtures of the paper's main editions.

Both papers portrayed these moves as ways to better serve their readers. Other news outlets discussed them as mildly interesting wardrobe changes, signs of shifting business models within the two parent companies.

As always when covering themselves, the media buried the lede. The changes at The Times and The Journal may appear to be cosmetic and company-specific, but they are the latest emblems of a broad and significant shift in journalism and in society at large. To understand it, the best place to begin is the debut issue of The Times' Escapes section, which arrived on April 5, several days before the Wall Street Journal rollout. Under the jaunty headline, "No Beaches, No Boondocks, No Problem," one front-page piece reported that more and more buyers of second homes are looking for country houses in old-fashioned villages. Among the families featured was a couple named Kathleen and Willem van Rijn, who live in Tokyo but spend summers in the village of Wickford, R.I., where they own two houses. One is a 19th-century Federal that they rent out; the other is "a 1735 post-and-beam just off Main Street," which they use themselves. "They like the socioeconomic mix of residents in Wickford, as well as the easy social relations," Lisa Foderaro writes.

That's nice, but let's get down to what really matters here: I'm counting three houses now, or more likely an apartment and two houses. I'm also ruminating on those exorbitant Tokyo rents, mentally tallying up airfares, and fondly hoping that Foderaro will divulge exactly how these people support this boffo Tokyo-Wickford existence, which appears to give new meaning to the phrase "Town and Country." Alas, we are in the realm of that increasingly popular brand of journalism I call "Lifestyle Voyeurism," the rules of which require a certain tantalizing opacity as to the nitty-gritty details of income and net worth. While the mind runs through the wildest possibilities (are they descendants of the most famous van Rijn of all, Rembrandt van Rijn, and heirs to the family art collection?), we learn only that Mrs. van Rijn "worked in telecommunications for 20 years before becoming a New York City schoolteacher." How she manages that 28-hour round-trip commute between home and classroom is left to our imaginations.

Welcome to the New New Journalism, which is all about pulling in the richest slice of American society—the people who buy $60,000 cars without blinking, cook on Viking ranges, know an Opus One from a Chateau Ausone, and live a kind of good life that's unheard-of in most of the world. Thanks to the unmatched prosperity of the United States, there are now lots of these people, millions of millionaires, so many that they have begun to form a community all their own. It's not a community in the usual sense of a group of people defined by ties of neighborhood, family, religion, ethnicity, and work. This is a national community defined exclusively by wealth, taste, and habits of consumption. It's the community that national advertisers are desperate to reach. Which is why our two most elite national papers are scrambling to reach them, too.

While the changes at The Times and The Wall Street Journal serve a number of purposes—The Journal's renovations opened up more room on its front page for breaking news, for example—the purpose they share is to keep this golden readership happy. That means not just the usual news offerings, but journalism about how to live the American high life.

The Wall Street Journal gave a new spin to lifestyle journalism in the late 1990s, when it created its Friday Weekend Journal. The section took a page from high-end magazines that cover travel, wine, and other voluptuary pleasures, plus that eternal fascination of rich Americans, real estate. Ingeniously formatted and fun, the section was a huge hit. Now The Journal has expanded it to several other days, in the Personal Journal section. The Times has done much the same thing, going national with its popular lifestyle sections on food, houses, and the arts. The result is that the kinds of stories one used to associate with rich people's magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler and Town & Country—spa ratings, guides to hiring the best nannies, tips on shopping in Morocco—are now newspaper fare.

The Journal's features have a more practical, populist feel. The debut issue brought a front-page piece on American Express's super-elite, invitation-only Black Card, with the headline, "The Credit Card You Can't Get." Maybe most Journal readers can't get it, but in running the story, the paper cannily guessed that many of its readers are the sort of people who aspire to exactly this kind of status symbol. The Times's lifestyle pages are less abashed about their elitism, featuring a parade of van Rijns who are eating, buying, flying, and interior-decorating their way through life. They have the world on a string, and the media on a leash.