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The Media Dinosaurs
By Jostein Gripsrud

Just before easter, Bjarte Birkeland passed away, professor of Nordic Literature at the University of Bergen, my former tutor and one of the most prominent representatives of new Norwegian culture over the last 50 years. He wrote the reference work on Per Sivle, and was in his professorship a wise, broadminded supporter of innovation in the research practice of literary sociology, including critical reevaluations of precisely new-norwegian literature and culture. Birkeland was in all respects “a well-educated man” – possessing knowledge and reflection in a broad range of cultural and societal issues.

In keeping with this he was also – and that is the main issue here – an unusually adept journal editor. More precisely in his work with Det Norske Samlaget’s 105 year old journal Syn og Segn. Journals of this type are perhaps the most important media of thorough and general cultural refinement. Birkeland joined the journal in the 1950’s, when the circulation was at about 1500 copies. During his term as editor in the 60’s, the circulation was multiplied tenfold from this number, reaching 14-15.000 copies of each issue.

Currently the circulation of Syn og Segn is hovering around 3500, while its senior by five years, Samtiden, has a circulation of about 4500. The qualities of the various editors, however, is only one aspect in this development. The 60’s was a decade of growth for journals, in parallel with the emergence of paperback discussion books. It was a time of great interest in education. Journal editors with a finger on the pulse of the times could count on reaching a great number of readers. People with long hair and Bob Dylan as their favorite entertainer were interested in almost anything – Zen Buddhism, history, jazz, imperialism, philosophy, nuclear weapons, farming in northern Norway, poetry and Marxism. The number of students was tripled in the course of the decade, and this expanded the market for thematically wide-ranging journals.

With an almost equal increase in the number of students over the last 15 years, one might have expected a corresponding growth in the circulation numbers of journals in the 90’s as well. But according to my own studies, students at Universities and Colleges today are more likely to be avid readers of common magazines. Only a microscopic number read academic journals – of any kind. Students of medicine read the doctors’ union magazine, but apart from this their reading is dominated by Kvinner og Klær and Se og Hør . Neither Samtiden nor Syn og Segn are on the list of the 50 most read magazines, journals or periodicals among students. Equally absent are the publisher Gyldendal’s literary journal Vinduet or the politically oriented Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift.

It would seem that the wide horizon of interest and knowledge - which characterizes proper education - has dissolved. For many years specialization has been the keyword for the population segments from which journal readers have traditionally been recruited. It seems increasingly rare that someone with a serious interest in literature or other arts is also seriously engaged in politics – and vice versa. The American term ‘nerd’ has been imported primarily as a characterization of people with a propensity for asocial behavior and fixation with technology. But there are also art-nerds, economy-nerds, sports-nerds, and so forth. The development in the media, including the digitalization of radio and television, follow and support this tendency closely through the subdivision of the audience into segments and their specialized offerings for all kinds of distinct groups – groups with good credit records and high appeal for advertisers. Where before we spoke of sports idiots and scholarly idiots, the record of possible idiocies is apparently expanding radically: the greek term ‘idiot’ used to mean ‘one who stands alone’, outside the city state, the polis, e.g. outside politics. So an idiot is someone who has no knowledge of politics, generally speaking.

We can’t turn back time, and nostalgia is always questionable. But what’s at stake here is the reality referred to by terms such as general education and general knowledge – knowledge and insight in several areas, combined by an understanding of correlations. With their combination of wide range and great depth the general cultural journals, with roots reaching back to the nascent European public realm of the 18th century, are appearing more and more like media dinosaurs amongst the flurry of quick journalistic products, magazines bulging with ads, and specialized entertainment channels.

But the dinosaurs enjoyed something like a renaissance after Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movie. The media dinosaurs might be subjected to something similar – if they are able to uncover similar fundamental needs and undercurrents, articulated in an innovative form. The desire to gain insight and understanding of societal and cultural correlations does exist, openly as well as potentially. The relatively demanding mode of the academic journal cannot satisfy every desire. But – keeping in mind that more than one third of the population have a higher education, and the current standard of media offerings – the potential audience should be very big.

Innovative reevaluations of form and content are required if we are to nurture any hope of recreating the hextupled circulations catalysed by Bjarte Birkeland for Syn og Segn. Do parttime editors, no matter how much education they have, have any time for this? Journals nowadays are more likely to bear the marks of haste than of sense. People are forced to prioritize more strictly, and the offerings of the media have been multiplied manifold. In this reality, journals must reflect and prefigure our times, and write for an enlightened public, not for the writer’s own peers.

Jostein Gripsrud is professor of Media Studies at the University of Bergen. He has been employed in a number of central positions in Norway’s media in the last decades. Regular columnist on the media in Dagens Næringsliv. Currently leader of the project Cultural Disorder.

Translator’s note: “new Norwegian” refers to a written dialect developed from the 19th century onward, as an alternative to the Danish-influenced “Bokmål” or Book language.
Translator’s note: KK, think Elle for Housewives; Se og Hør = People Magazine.