Retro References

Editor & Publisher’s website ran a really interesting column by Ralph Keyes a few days back: “Eddie Haskell and Howard Beale: Go Home! Journos are Alienating Readers With ‘Retro’ References.'”

In the column, Keyes explains that many journalists are using references to characters, movies and personalities that many Gen Xers wouldn’t recognize, let alone the Millennial Generation kids. My first reaction was “Oh no. Have I been doing that? Have I been dropping cryptic references to things that my readers have never heard of? Do I sound hopelessly uncool and out of date, even though I still have a few glorious months left in the coveted 18-34 age demographic?” I wanted to scramble through my old clip file and pull out some of my old stories to see what silly things I’ve written.

But then I thought about it for a few more minutes. Many of the reporters and writers that Keyes cites–i.e. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, and Leonard Pitts of The Miami Herald–are writing for print publications. Isn’t that one of the big woes of the mainstream media, that the readership of traditional publications like newspapers is aging? Wouldn’t it make sense, in that case, to assume that yeah, most of your readers actually will understand the so-called “retro references”? I mean, it’s not like hordes of high school students and college students are reading newspapers these days (sadly). They’re reading everything online–when they read things–and it’s not like they’re turning to the traditional publications for their news. They’re twittering and MySpacing and Facebooking and texting.

I was born in (gulp) 1974, which puts me smack in the middle of Generation X. I do get some of the references. I know who Eddie Haskell is. I watched countless reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” on TBS when my family finally got cable when I was a little girl. But yes, I’ll admit that some of the references that Keyes alludes to are even over my head. Does it bother me? Not particularly. As Keyes mentions, it’s easy enough for me to Google the answer…or use my supah reading skilz to deduce what the writer means by using context clues (I used to ace standardized tests).

And frankly, consider the likely alternative to using dated references. Ack! Is there anything worse than an older person laboring to use a cool new expression that “all the kids are using”? It’s so embarrassing that it makes me feel like a sixteen-year-old whose mother just awkwardly but enthusiastically used some “hip” slang in front of my drill team buddies. I don’t want to read staid columnists suddenly trying to sound cool. It’d be like one of the graying Hall of Famer baseball players trying to wear a flat-brimmed ball cap like an early-twenties shortstop just up from the minors. Just don’t do it.

But I understand the point that using dated references may alienate younger readers. And that’s bad, especially at a time when most media outlets need all the readers they can get to justify their existence to the people who pay the bills. And a little tiny, disaffected Gen Xer-part of me is maybe a little bit delighted to see the mighty Baby Boomers get taken down a notch or two for assuming that everyone understands all their cultural references and that the references are all still current and relevant.

So what’s the solution? For writers, I’d say, “Think before you write. And put some effort into talking to younger people and finding some new, relevant references that you can use in the future.” For readers, I’d say, “Don’t give up on the writers just for alluding to something you don’t understand. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

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About jenniferlarsonwrites

I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. I have a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor's degree in English from Rhodes College. I'm a born-and-bred Southerner who spent a few years in Southern California, a rabid baseball fan and a would-be grower of tomatoes. You can also visit me at LinkedIn or on Twitter at @JenniferLarson.
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2 Responses to Retro References

  1. margiewrites says:

    Seriously! I’ve been annoyed for quite some time how everything is so baby boomer-ified, and you’re supposed to catch onto all their little inside jokes. It reminds me of when I was growing up as a kid and thought the 70s references my mom and aunts made were so lame.

    I think writers definitely have to start taking into consideration that they’re not only writing to their own age group, or they will make themselves appear sooo not with it. Only current pop culture references, please!

  2. jenniferlarsonwrites says:

    Thank you for backing me up here!

    I do think it’s okay to use a pop culture reference that crosses generations, though. I mean, I don’t mean to deny the huge cultural impact that certain people have made, despite the fact that they may have made those contributions many years ago. (See: the Beatles, Andy Warhol, etc.) But I think too many people rely on dated references too often. And even if some of us still understand them, yawn!

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