It’s easy to deride the current state of mass media. We’re inundated with bland sitcoms and generic action movies. Reality TV stars and royal weddings grace the pages of our magazines and newspapers. It sometimes feels as if we’re one more “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel away from forgetting about Shakespeare entirely.
Yet, this cultural doom and gloom may be misplaced. Andrew Rashbass, chief executive of The Economist Group, asserts that we’re actually experiencing a rise of the mass intelligent. Pay television has demonstrated that there is a market for high-quality, smart television shows. The recent success of “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” shows that “art house” movies can be widely popular. Podcasts like “This American Life” and “Planet Money” are gaining in popularity. Rashbass suggests that people are “smarting up” not “dumbing down”, creating a new type of media consumer, the mass intelligent.
Hollywood has even picked up on this shift to a culture that prizes intelligence. In the new comedy “21 Jump Street”, two cops (the nerdy Schmidt played by Jonah Hill and the cool Jenko played by Channing Tatum) join the secret Jump Street unit, going undercover in a local high school to break up a drug ring. Yet, this high school culture is very different from what Schmidt and Jenko experienced as teenagers. As one review of the film says, “Times have changed; nerds are popular and people who don’t try are looked down upon, no matter how good they are at a sport. Suddenly, Schmidt is popular and Jenko is the one struggling to make friends.” Nerdy has become the new cool.
Interestingly, the growth of the mass intelligent is not leading to a decline in lowbrow culture. Instead, people are consuming both high and lowbrow media. It is increasingly acceptable, and even desirable, to be well versed in both the latest issue of The Economist and the most recent episode of “The Bachelor.” With the rise of the nerds, the traditional boundary between elite and mass media is blurring.
This all suggests that there still remains a large audience for high-quality journalism and media. To survive in the digital world, publishers shouldn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator, but instead focus on targeting the mass intelligent. And it may come as a shock that, at the end of the day, this may mean making your publication smarter, more intelligent and a little nerdier.