Byliner, September 11, 2011
When I published The New New Journalism in 2005, some questioned my argument that American long form nonfiction was thriving. Weren’t people’s—and especially young people’s—attentions spans shrinking? Who had time to read long articles and books? How many magazines still published long form nonfiction? And weren’t they, too, disappearing?
And this was in the pre-Facebook and Twitter era—a simpler time when the phrase “social media” conjured up images of a literary cocktail party or book launch. Then came the Great Recession of 2008, which threw every aspect of the economy into doubt. Even the strongest magazines and newspapers fought for their lives. How could I possibly champion such a backward-looking, labor-intensive, time-consuming journalistic genre now?
All good questions, for which I have only tentative responses. My bullishness comes from several sources. Empirically, I’ve noticed that, regardless of macro-economic circumstances, people in advanced industrial societies tend to expect better and better things in their lives (faster and faster): multifunctional “smart” phones, cameras that produce clearer photographs and videos, lighter and more powerful computers, larger and thinner televisions, and (most recently) tablets. With the constant improvements in hardware with which to watch, listen, read, browse and communicate, isn’t it likely that their owners will want similarly high quality “content” (that dreaded word!) to watch, read, browse and listen to?
Another part of my bullishness comes from my own experience as a writer and teacher. Every fall, when I greet the new group of NYU students, the first thing I do is welcome them to the house of journalism. It is a big house, I explain, with many differently shaped and designed rooms. The rooms have names like “blog post,” “feature,” “essay,” “foreign report” and “book,” and seems to add a room or two every year. In order to have a long and enjoyable career, I continue, they must find one room they truly love, and decorate and design it so that it reflects their very best attributes. In addition, they need to find a few other rooms where they feel comfortable, since one can’t live in a single room forever. Each of the rooms has a different function, and must be maintained in a way that makes sense for it. Sometimes we move to the living room, invite our friends over, and have a noisy party. Other times we want to be alone, so retire to the study to ponder a single subject in peace. And then there are times when we have a small dinner party, and then retire to the porch to continue a particularly intense conversation with a single interlocutor. The variations are, potentially, limitless.
I offer the above advice as one who has worked exclusively on the editorial side of journalism, but thought a great deal about the economic engine that supports it. After all, one of the lessons of the past decade is that we all, in some sense, dwell on the business side as well. Some of my colleagues refer to this as “entrepreneurial journalism,” although I think of it as simply thinking like a freelancer (which I was for a decade).
During those “Grub Street” days, I learned a truth that the business side is only now coming to terms with: no writer, or journalism organization, can sustain itself with a single business model. So to get by I wrote book reviews and essays (which paid a pittance) to advance my research and thinking on long articles (which paid more). I wrote for women’s and travel magazines (which paid a fortune), as much for the writing opportunities as the chance they gave me to travel, and look into new stories. I wasn’t the most successful journalist of my generation, nor was I the least. But I managed to develop a decent reputation and, most importantly, enjoy myself.
My wanderings through the house of journalism was made easier by my inexpensive, tiny apartment. But it was made possible by the fact that I paid each room its due. I didn’t expect to live off of book reviews and essays, and I didn’t take on only the best-paying assignments. I mixed it up as much as I could, and I would argue that those trying to meet the economic challenges to journalism must try to as well.
I’d compare the current thinking about business models for journalism to the real estate developer who builds nothing but malls. What we need, the thinking goes, is as many large, easily designed, open spaces as possible, the better to lead masses of people through.
Contemporary journalism has broken down the walls, and wants everyone to sit in the same room (usually the busiest, loudest room in the house). A collection of idiosyncratic houses, each containing different sized rooms is too confusing and cluttered, the thinking goes. No, the trick is to “go big” and throw enormous parties to which everyone is invited. How else can a website attract millions of “hits”?
Which is not to say that there isn’t any good news in the journalism world. There is. It is important to remember that, however imperiled journalists feel, the big story is the fact that never before have so many people had so much access to such a diverse and enormous supply of information. And never before have they consumed so much of it. This is undeniably true, and of great benefit to mankind. The audience for journalism has never been larger. If the business of journalism is in trouble, the trouble is not that there is too little demand for its product.
Websites of newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times are visited by tens of millions of readers each month. If the journalism is dying, the funeral will have the largest number of mourners in history.
But if vast numbers of people want to consume journalism, they also want to consume it at their convenience, and in their own way. It isn’t so much that they want so-called “personalized news” (the Holy Grail of news aggregators) as that they want to control the way they consume it. This is something the entertainment and communications industries understand, which is why there has been an explosion in the number of ways we are able to listen to music, watch movies and talk to each other. These industries understand that if they don’t satisfy the customer, they will die.
In this respect, it is journalism that has failed the public, and not the other way around. Despite its deathbed conversion to the church of the internet, journalism organizations still want their customers to consume their wares in the ways they always have. (The notion that the internet destroyed newspapers and television news is a myth. Newspaper circulation had been declining for some time before the internet came along.) Sure, they’d put articles on the web, and even add video, audio and interactive graphics. What these organizations have created is merely the appearance of a big house. But instead of individually decorated rooms, the visitor finds the same enormous space, only filled with a warren of temporary cubbies and alcoves. The basic strategy of pairing advertising with editorial, and then putting the combined product in front of masses of customers, has gone virtually unchallenged.
If anything, putting their entire emphasis on the advertising model, the journalism industry doubled-down on its bet—at precisely the moment that Google and others were perfecting a method of exploiting every segment of the advertising market, save for luxury goods (nobody Googles “Ferrari”).
Why is traditional journalism in such bad shape? I’ll answer that question with a question: How many thriving industries can you think of that have used essentially the same technology and business model for a century? The world has changed too much for this to be a realistic possibility.
From 1945 through 1985, one of the best jobs in the newspaper industry was that of an advertising salesman at a large, metropolitan daily. Every day he would arrive at his office and simply pick up the phone to take orders from every department store and retailer in town. As long as the reporters and editors provided enough editorial copy to publish advertisements against, the system worked.
For decades, large news organizations enjoyed higher and higher profits by attracting bigger and bigger audiences. And in order to attract those audiences, magazines and newspapers priced their products artificially low. They didn’t discriminate all that much between different kinds of consumers they attracted. They just wanted to get as many as possible.
As a result, they came to depend more and more on readers with only a superficial attachment to journalism. These readers had little loyalty to brands or to particular modes of presenting journalism (such as reading it on paper). They devalued journalism because much of what was produced—certainly in mid-market newspapers—simply wasn’t “worth” paying for. Not because editors are stupid or evil, but simply because it wasn’t designed to be paid for. Much of journalism existed solely to provide a frame for the advertising. This laziness of the business model eventually effected the quality of the journalism itself.
When I cited the huge numbers of people who visited online versions of the New York Times and other national newspapers, I neglected to note a disheartening fact: the vast number of these “readers” aren’t very valuable to advertising-driven newspapers. Most of the online readers don’t spend much time at the websites. A 2010 report from the Pew Center found that “the average visitor spends only 3 minutes, 4 seconds per session on the typical news site.”
This wasn’t always the case. As recently as 2005, half of U.S. newspaper readers spent more than thirty minutes reading their daily paper. Did these people—the ones with a substantial commitment to journalism—just disappear over the past six years? Or did mainstream journalism simply stop caring about them? br>
The second thing I tell my incoming students is to distrust anyone who claims he knows what the future of journalism holds. At the risk of falling into this category, I have a prediction of my own. In the future, journalism will be either very short, or very long. Nothing in the middle will survive.
The short news will be information and stories that register immediately, and carry no expectation that an audience will stick around. It will consist of financial news, summaries with links (as with Twitter), and updates of past stories you have read (like Google alerts on subjects you follow). Information technology has become very good at churning out this kind of information, and because so much of it is done by machines, according to algorithms, it is quite inexpensive to produce.
At the other end of the spectrum there will be long news: in-depth articles, short books, videos, audio podcasts—all of which can command the consumer’s attention for a long, long time. Long journalism is everything short journalism isn’t. It is expensive and laborious to create. It takes a lot of time to consume. It is unpredictable. It isn’t targeted at a particular demographic whose preferences and past behavior is known; consumers of long news don’t go to it for predictable or easily identifiable reasons. Because it is created ex nihilo, it must seduce, convince and lure its consumer. Therefore the form in which it is presented is extremely important. If it is in print, the layout must be stylish. If it is on the web it must be convenient, accessible and portable. Regardless of the medium, it will most likely include arresting photography, video, audio—or some creative combination of them all.
In the future, the long/short economy will be all that matters in journalism. Looking back, we are discovering that the size of the audience has been systematically over-rated. We have made a category mistake, confusing (and equating) consumers of short news with consumers of long news. Both are important, and both must be counted. But they shouldn’t be counted together. Right now we measure them in roughly the same way: a click is a click. Studies have shown that a small number of dedicated readers generate the greatest number of page views. They visit the sites they love most frequently, they look at more pages when they visit, and they spend more time on the site. They are the long readers, and should be counted in that way.
In the future, we must not only measure them differently, but design everything about their media experiences differently. Short, disengaged readers need to get their basic news as efficiently as possible, and they will pay for that privilege. Long, engaged readers must be made as comfortable as possible so that they might luxuriate in the journalism they love. And they, too, will pay for the privilege.
Engagement, not numbers, will become the most important characteristic. The more engaged the readers are, the more chance we have of making money from them—whether through advertisements or a variety of other transactions. The benefit of more engagement isn’t just in higher ad rates, but in relationships that publishers must to build with their most loyal readers—a dynamic that has been lost in the drive to attract mass audiences.
This is a time of great experimentation in journalism. In some respects the book and magazine industries have an advantage over newspaper and broadcast because their business model was so unpredictable to begin with. I once interviewed the distinguished editor Robert Giroux, of the publishing house Farrar Strauss Giroux. “Publishing has never been a rational business,” he told me. “What real business launches 100,000 new products a year, without doing any market research or testing?”
So it may not be a surprise that a lot of the creativity in journalism is taking place in book and magazine publishing. Although print book sales fell by ten percent this past February, e-book sales increased by 202 percent. They now represent over twenty percent of total book sales. Downloadable audiobook sales also increased by thirty-six percent in February, which I interpret as evidence that people are eager to engage books when the books are presented in a convenient form.
Another sign of hope is Byliner, the new publishing company and the creators of the site on which you’re reading this essay. Along with new projects like Amazon’s Kindle Singles, the new digital shorts offerings from Barnes and Noble, the Atavist, and magazine curators like Longform.org and LongReads, Byliner is betting that readers are hungry for good, long journalism. None of these enterprises eschew advertising, but none of them rely on it either. They are big house ventures, one and all.