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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.