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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Can editors change their spots?

This piece by economist Robert G. Picard is called "why journalists deserve low pay". The nub of his argument is that journalistic skills are being commoditised out of existence and therefore hacks have to find new ways to add value. He makes the point that in the early days of newspapers journalists were far more involved in the selling of their services than they are today, when most of them like to think that what they do is somehow beyond grubby commerce, even as economic forces indicate that if ever there was a time to get on one's bike this is it. He says:
Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.
I think his analysis is sound - and he's the first person to point out that change is more likely to come from journalists than management - but his proposed solutions are as woofly as, well, everybody else's, inspired by a Micawberish belief that something will turn up rather than a passionate belief that it will. He points to the fact that Newsweek is switching its focus from news-gathering to analysis and suggests that America's big local papers should develop a reputation for covering particular areas. I can't see either kind of change being anything like radical enough.

Editors, who are a form of journalist, have particular challenges in the new dispensation because their historic strength has been a skill in creating a balanced package. Now that people can access elements of that mix, what price the amount of sweat and expense that goes into the fashioning of the package? Magazine editors spend most of their time deciding what they're *not* going to do and trying to arrive at a mix that the majority of people will like. They then find that whatever they've arrived at is too much for some people and not enough for others. This is made more difficult by the fact that their readers, being the most engaged in their particular area, are the people most likely to tap into other sources themselves. The people who value your mix most are also the people who would feel most qualified to mix it themselves.

Every month I get emails from some readers of The Word, who are the most engaged readers of anything in my experience, saying how much their enjoyment of the magazine would have been increased if only it didn't also have a certain element. I can well understand how you might want more of something but fail to understand how you could similarly want less of something, particularly since the magazine operates in a steadily expanding universe of stuff and therefore the chances of one's personal favourites being featured must be getting less all the time.

I subscribe to The New Yorker. One of its chief delights is that it's impossible to predict what's going to be in it. I wonder whether magazines of the future might be more of a mystery tour than they are today. In a sense it seems inevitable. If that's to happen it needs some brave editors and some even braver readers.


  1. Is this not the same process that hit the music industry - if the customer can pick the hit single and one other good track why buy the packaged album ? if the customer can read the individual who he thinks is always funny/informative why buy the magazine and be stuck with all those other nitwits who bang on about tosh ?

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post - and the Robert G. Picard piece - but as a journalist, it just all seems so vast to comprehend. You mention that change may come from journalists themselves, but in my experience, approaching editors with change in mind is a one-way ticket to a vox pop. Keeps hacks in their place, you know.
    Perhaps as my experience grows I will get more satisfaction...

  3. Paul K9:30 am

    Three key journalistic skills were missing from Picard's analysis. He referred to "gathering, processing, and distributing information". However, perhaps even more important in this age are:

    1) Confirming; good journalists are responsible for verifying the accuracy of what they gather and then disseminate

    2) Interpreting; it is often the analysis and contextualising of news which is more valuable than the news itself

    3) Entertaining; let us not underestimate the value of good writing to enthrall an audience.

    All of these three elements are painfully lacking in most online writing - and perhaps these are the elements which will retain the economic value of good journalism.

  4. “I think the reason the English magazines die off like flies is that the editors are wondering timidly all the time what their readers are going to like, and won’t take a chance on anything that isn’t on exactly the same lines as everything else thay have ever published. Lorimer (editor of the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post) has always had an unswerving faith in his own judgement. His attitude is ’I like this story, and to hell with what anyone else thinks’. That’s how he has made the Post such a success.”

    P.G. Wodehouse in 1936 (from Performing Flea, his wonderful “self-portrait in letters”)

    Mind you I once worked for an editor with a lethal combination: unswerving faith in her own judgement and lousy judgement. Just as well it was a contract magazine not a newstand one.

    (How apt: a post about PG Wodehouse at ten to three and the Word Verification is “scone”. Yes please, with jam, cream and a pot of darjeeling.

  5. Paul K4:44 pm

    That's why editors hate research - it reduces content to the lowest common denominator of the largest possible audience.

  6. Anonymous3:30 pm

    The problem with a comment like Paul K's (sorry to single you out!) is that it ignores that the revolution *has* happened. Newspapers are dying on their feet, magazine sales are (relatively speaking) down and are prematurely getting screwed through lack of ads...
    There are many, *many* online news and comment sources that are ostensibly free, and operate within the three criteria you've mentioned. And, unlike print journalism, they can also be updated and changed to delete innacuracies, which to an extent, in more amateur-led blogs, mitigates point no.1.

    Picard is absolutely right, in as much as it is the journalist who holds the key to their own 'brand' at this point. Anyone sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that they'll still be making a living in the standard print way, relying on their newspaper/magazine to get the stuff online for them is going to have a tough time in the longer term.

    If the 'future' hasn't quite worked out how it's going to work yet, nevertheless sitting back and waiting is not an option.

  7. rad4ever12:41 pm

    In my experience the mind set of Management and Publishers, not journalists are the main obstacle of progress. Budget cutting, low staff numbers and the the big fear of missing the target audience/advertisers overwhelms editorial direction.

    This is what needs to change before magazines properly evolve again.
    When a magazine has budget, staff and a trusted editor things start to happen.