OPINION: Starched shirts and other generation gaps in news

A longtime friend just a couple of years younger than me called recently to ask some advice. I’m always flattered when anyone seeks my opinion. It makes me feel wise and useful, which is more uplifting than my usual traits of cranky and opinionated.

But rather than some in-depth inquiry into public policy, finances, taxes, politics or journalism, his question made me feel nostalgic, like remembering my younger life of scrubbing whitewall tires, the low-cost joy of replacing a simple car key before expensive programmable fobs took over the world, and the accomplishment of installing a new typewriter ribbon without getting ink all over my fingers.

He asked: “What is starch?”

My friend was going to a wedding and needed to wear a dress shirt — not a common occurrence for this guy. He had taken the shirt to the laundry to get it washed and pressed and the clerk asked a question that has been around for hundreds of years: “Starch or no starch.”

My friend had no idea, but guessed at no starch and then, puzzled at the question, called me to ask. I reassured him that he got it right. I probably explained way more about starched collars than he wanted to know, but that was my fault. My mind works like a Google search — I just spew out what I know, without thinking that all the person needs is a simple yes or no.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject — shirts, not Google. I have been ironing my own shirts for 60 years, since high school, when I expressed dissatisfaction with my mom’s ironing quality and she threw the shirt back at me and said, “Iron it yourself!” I guess you call that a teaching moment.

A couple of days after my friend’s question, while I was still basking in the warm nostalgia of my first steam iron, I read a news story that stiffened — without starch — my belief that I live in another era. The Wall Street Journal cited a report that said the median age of MSNBC cable news viewers is 70. It’s 69 for people who watch Fox News on cable, 67 for CNN viewers and 66 for ABC. The pre-Medicare crowd flocks to CBS, where the median age of viewers is a spry 64.


And if you think the old-age affection for TV applies only to news programming, you’d be as misguided as someone who orders heavy starch for their shirts. The median age of MTV cable viewers is 51, according to data from Nielsen researchers. The average MTV viewer is almost a decade older than the channel itself. If this keeps up, MTV should start soliciting ads for AARP and Medicare supplemental insurance to match its audience.

The data reaffirms what we already know about the preferences of younger people: Cable is the past; streaming is the future. In the same vein, print newspapers are struggling while social media is thriving. Talking on the phone is in decline as texting and messaging are on the rise.

Out with the old and in with the new seems irreversible, as I suppose it should be.

None of this is intended to make fun of senior citizens. We’re an essential part of the community. Seniors volunteer and vote — and probably eat their vegetables — more than younger people. It’s merely a recognition of change. Seniors have memories and years of experience, while younger people are creating their own by different means — Apple and Android rather than wired phones on the desk.

But until they know all the answers, feel free to call me anytime. It makes me feel useful. And remember: Starch belongs on the dinner plate, not shirt collars.

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal public policy work in Alaska and Washington, D.C. He lives in Anchorage and is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Larry Persily

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work. He currently is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.