Years from now, when the wars are over and we're looking back at 2002, it may turn out that the year's most significant media moment occurred on June 22, when Eppie Lederer died in her Chicago apartment. In more than 40 years as the advice columnist Ann Landers, Lederer had become one of the most published and beloved journalists ever. According to the Chicago Tribune, where she was based, the Ann Landers column appeared in more than 1,200 papers, making it "the world's best-read and most widely syndicated newspaper column," with an audience estimated at 90 million.
American news outlets ran affectionate accounts of Lederer's life story, which brimmed with central-casting details. She worked in the bathtub, sported an eternal bouffant, and had a long-running rivalry with her identical twin, Dear Abby. After the obits, came a smattering of stories about who would now fill Lederer's considerable, high-heeled shoes. "Perplexed in U.S.: Who Will Replace Ann Landers?" read the headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Death of Ann Landers Leaves a Void," said The Boston Globe. What one learned from these stories was that it might not be possible for one person to do what Lederer had done—write a column that pleased an enormous mass audience, people of diverse interests and backgrounds, all at once.
Since 1955, when Lederer began writing, the media world has been balkanized by demographics. This is the age of tailored news, and these stories suggested that what we're probably looking at, post Ann Landers, is an array of narrowly aimed advice columns, each speaking to some relatively thin tranche of the market. "More than ever," reported The Inquirer, "columnists are catering to niches: kids, teens; seniors; parents; 21-year-old white jobless men who love pickup trucks." Said The Globe, "Among some of the fresher, more narrowly targeted advice columns the syndicators talk about are John Gray's Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It column aimed at those under 30; a Kid Tips column for young parents; and Ask CosmoGirl!, written for young women between 13 and 21 by the editor in chief of CosmoGirl! magazine."
The niche universe has some real talents. Hax's column, which runs in The Washington Post and is syndicated in more than 200 other papers (including many that picked it up after Landers died), has a dry, downbeat charm. Recently a 28-year-old male with confidence problems asked, "Should shy people not date other shy people because they'll never get anywhere together?" Hax's reply began, "But think of all the blissfully awkward silences you'd miss out on by avoiding shy people, when you have nothing to say and you don't even need to explain yourself because she doesn't have anything to say, either, and so wordlessly understands." It was a funny opener, and it was just an opener: Hax's answer ran 61 words longer than the young man's letter. The most successful niche columnists place themselves at the center of their columns, which often means long, clever answers that overshadow the questions. Dan Savage, a sex-advice columnist popular in alternative papers, is a hilarious riffer, a stand-up-comic kind of columnist who sometimes ignores a question entirely while he pursues some other amusing theme.
This is an inversion of Lederer's style, in which the questions took center stage and the answers tended toward the short and pithy. In person she was a huge personality, but on the page she kept the focus firmly on her audience, which gave her column a broad, inclusive feeling. Like Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the Landers column brought people together by emphasizing what they have in common, rather than playing to the demographic distinctions that cleave them. It was a cultural unifier, a concept that today seems quaint.
But is it? Since Landers's death, the Tribune has been searching for a possible successor, and it's on the verge of a decision, according to Deputy Managing Editor James Warren. Warren recently watched as six focus groups, three in the Chicago suburbs and three in the city, discussed work they'd been shown from half a dozen strong candidates for the job. Warren wouldn't say who these finalists are, but he did say they include experienced advice columnists as well as at least one person with no experience at all. The focus groups were clear about what they wanted: someone just like Ann Landers. Niche columnists with big, look-at-me styles made these readers "uneasy," he says. Columns that were "snappy and sharp and kind of droll and maybe a little bit cynical ... were very often instantly perceived as unappealing, and didn't have the sort of air of authority and neutrality which they tend to associate with Ann Landers."
Of course, newspaper readers skew old and are not exactly the media future. Still, it's striking that in this quintessential exercise of market-slicing, the focus group, the Tribune found a preference for the columnist who didn't slice it at all, the one who pulled people out of their niches and drew them together in that most common of media spaces, the metropolitan newspaper. Indeed, as proof of Landers's power, while the Tribune has been deciding how—and whether—to fill her slot, the paper has been running three columns genetically linked to hers: Annie's Mailbox, by her two longtime editors; Dear Abby; and Dear Prudence, a syndicated advice column that Lederer's daughter, Margo Howard, writes for Slate. Though Ann Landers is dead, she's still very much with us.
"I was surprised at how passionate folks are about this genre," Warren says, "And I was hit in the face with how measurable her impact remains."