Last month, Jacob Silverman made waves across the internet with a Slate piece called “Against Enthusiasm.” Writing about the controversy, I noted that,
It’s an unfortunate truth of online journalism that the stories that build the biggest immediate audiences tend to be those that tell their story twice, the first time as farce. [...] “Against Enthusiasm” may not have convinced very many of its readers, but by stirring controversy (even if only accidentally), it was successful by the only metric that matters to many online venues: readership.
That is, of course, nothing new. The Web is awash in stories that gain traction on the strength of appallingly reductive soundbites and misleading paraphrases — misleading even about the author’s own position. Online media by no means invented those tactics, but may have its own set of incentives for cleaving especially close to them.
Subsidizing Depth and Nuance
At about the same time as Silverman’s Jeremiad, Mark Potts posted to his own blog, Recovering Journalist , an account of the early days of The Washington Post‘s efforts to come to grips with the internet. The result was “a prototype electronic newspaper” called PostCard.
While Potts and his managing editor Robert Kaiser were well ahead of the curve, they couldn’t foresee precisely how the emerging technologies would change the economic model to which they were accustomed. The internet provided not only a new way of accessing the news; it also gave readers new tools for navigating it. The essential question would be — what happens when readers need no longer buy the entire bundle in order to see the one or two big stories that interest them?
Bundling matters because it makes it easier to pay for a particular kind of writing. To some extent, we see that style of writing in newspapers, usually as long-form investigative journalism. But for the past several centuries, its real haven has been the magazine.
Reduced to its essence, a magazine is a way of bundling content — the word is borrowed from Arabic, makhazin , where it originally referred to a storehouse. While most magazines are thematically bound by a single, commanding topic, the collection of material into columns and features gives magazines an artificial sort of unity, like a variety show. Variety, in fact, is (or used to be) central to their appeal.
To read the article that caught your eye, you must buy the entire issue, which in turn reinforces the editorial unity. That, in itself, was something of a novelty when the first English magazines were introduced, starting with Edward Cave’s Gentlemen’s Magazine . The popularity of general interest magazines soon supplanted that of more single-minded forms, like the once ubiquitous pamphlet.
That bundle, the magazine issue, is the basis of a wildly successful economic model. Part of the justification for that model is the way in which it encourages writing of some depth and nuance. It’s possible for magazine editors to pay for those qualities precisely because the reader buys the bundle, rather than individual articles.
Your average magazine cover is a sly inversion of that value. Apart from a few highbrow outliers, like The New Yorker, most magazine covers are designed to broadcast the value of their contents from the competitive jungle of the newsstand. With each issue, the editorial staff relies on the appeal of a few cover stories to subsidize the rest of the issue. Some, of course, hedge their bets, cluttering the layout of their cover with as many promises as they can muster, but the physical dimensions of traditional print media ensure that one or two stories will dominate, if only in terms of the real estate claimed by their corresponding photographs. In most cases, the front page winners are not those pointing to the stories with the greatest depth or importance, but rather those with the basest appeal.
Almost paradoxically, that fight for attention allows for stories that resist simplification. Because we see magazines as a package, it’s possible to sell the entire bundle on the strength of one or two simple messages, while simultaneously filling the rest of the magazine with stories that would be difficult to sell on their own strength. If anything, those other stories are more valuable for the difficultly involved in boiling them down to a cover-ready headline. But the situation changes when you move all of that online.
Once it became possible to find the contents of news and magazine media online, it quickly grew difficult to maintain the perception that they belonged as part of a bundle. With content updated daily in most cases, and usually to a single webspace, the notion of discrete issues and editions began to crumble. The difficulties only intensified as social media developed. Soon, people were getting to news stories not from the front page of the site, but from millions of hyperlink portals elsewhere on the net. The permeability of those borders allowed them to jump right to the articles that were easiest to represent by attention-grabbing headlines while overlooking the more complex type of writing that print magazines foster.
Inexorably, the logic of online media shifted toward the balkanization of content. Media outlets still rely on advertising to pay their publishing costs, but the accounting now hinges on pageviews and clickthroughs. Ultimately, that means that every page must pay for itself. It must do so not on the intrinsic merit of its content (which is all to easy to overlook when you’re a browser rather than a reader), but on its ability to attract an audience via channels that function on simplification.
As it turns out, demanding economic self-sufficiency from every article printed online ends up having a deleterious effect on the values (like depth and nuance) that the bundling logic of print could afford to promote. In order to justify the editorial investment, an online article must either stand a good chance of drawing in a big crowd, cost virtually nothing to produce in the first place, or “drive engagement” — a popular bit of social media jargon for getting a site’s visitors to do more than just read a page.
All three are tall orders if the goal is to provide an article of some substance. The question that must ultimately vex the editor is that of how online media can virtues that by their very nature cannot be summed up in a tweet.
We have our work cut out for us if we want to build the sort of online media environment that encourages writing possessed by the virtues that are fostered by magazines at their best. If nothing else, it will requires seeing digital innovation much as the creators of PostCard did — not as something that happens to print media, but as another editorial obligation.