This was easier to grasp if you were in the business of peddling heroin, Internet stocks, or celebrity gossip; journalists, on the other hand, were at a conspicuous disadvantage when it came to understanding their role in this equation. In the past, newspapers had made respectable margins selling a non-inane product largely because people had little choice but to herald their sublets and white sales alongside the journalists’ tales of human suffering/corporate corruption/government ineptitude. The times were prosperous enough that much of the print media even chose to abstain from taking a share of the demand-creation campaigns of liquor and tobacco brands in the seventies and eighties. Indeed, journalism, it went without saying, was about delivering important information about the world—information people (and democracy!) needed, whether they knew it or not. That journalism’s ability to deliver that information—to fill that need—ultimately depended, to an unsettling degree, on the ability to create artificial demand for a lot of stuff that people didn’t actually need—luxury condos, ergonomically correct airplane seats, the latest celebrity-endorsed scent—was an afterthought at best, at least in the newsroom.
Journalists, by and large, had so little appreciation for their dependence on the larger engine of artificial demand that they were mostly blindsided when the Internet happened and they lost the benefits of that engine. A lot of them seemed to take it personally. They got insecure. Some started writing “trend” stories and giving over their column inches to celebrity newswires and sincerely talking about bylines (and politicians and everything else) as “brands.” They sold Time Warner to an absurdly overinflated dot-com. It’s not fair, of course, to blame only the journalists; there were mostly avowed capitalists in the corner offices of these places, and it is the fiduciary responsibility of capitalists to be as cowardly and uncreative as possible in times of fear and change.
This existential angst tormented even the commerce-savvy staff of the Journal, where I was assigned to the “youth” beat—which is to say, and it very much went without saying, youthful consumption trends. I was too young to realize that this was one of the few subjects about which young reporters, particularly the female ones, were trusted to cover with any measure of authority—because really, who gives a shit? I embedded myself on the front lines of the brand wars as if posterity really cared whether a popular new celebrity-endorsed offering from Nike or Adidas or Mattel or Urban Outfitters had yielded a noticeable market-share loss or gain that quarter. (To be fair, some hedge funds cared about this.)
Despite the superficiality of this beat, the people who inhabited it—the brands that were in demand—had money, power, and an attendant sense of entitlement that could be intimidating. At twenty-three, I felt sufficiently ancient and uncool to be consistently alarmed when, say, a sixteen-year-old small forward from Akron wrote me an angry two-way pager message when I respectfully declined his invitation to party in his hotel suite following a high school basketball tournament, or I awoke from a minor sneaker brand’s after-party to find a nineteen-year-old San Bernardino skateboarder attempting nonconsensual sex with me, or even when young celebrity stylists seemed sincerely to want to be my friend. I did not really identify with the cool-hunting, brand-building, sneaker-collecting generation of professional consumers I worked over for trend-story ideas, but neither did my colleagues in the bureau seem to identify with the megalomaniacal talent agents and casino magnates or the disgruntled aerospace engineers and short sellers they talked to all day.