John R. MacArthur says the internet makes bad journalism. He has a point.
The publisher of Harper's has been mocked for failing to adapt to the internet era. But maybe the joke's on the rest of us.
John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's, thinks that online journalism is, well, not real journalism. In a profile in The New York Times, he struck all the wrong fussy notes, blaming the enthusiasm for the Web within his own organization on "a small mob of what I can't help but refer to as 'young people.'"
And MacArthur was categorical in a way that invited jeers:
"I've got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the internet and blowing off steam," he said. "If they want to do that, that's fine. But it doesn't pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism." [The New York Times]
And jeer they did. Jonathan Chait said MacArthur's comments betrayed a funny metaphysics, since what makes the Web different? The Web can have editors. It can have reporters who invest lots of time into stories. And they do. Even viral sites like BuzzFeed are doing more of this.
But I suspect MacArthur has a point. Reporter Ravi Somaiya summed up MacArthur's views this way:
The web is bad for writers, he said, who are too exhausted by the pace of an endless news cycle to write poised, reflective stories and who are paid peanuts if they do. It's bad for publishers, who have lost advertising revenue to Google and Facebook and will never make enough from a free model to sustain great writing. And it's bad for readers, who cannot absorb information well on devices that buzz, flash, and generally distract. [The New York Times]
MacArthur's first two points are related. With a business model based on a ton of cheap content, Web publishers can rely too heavily on acid-reflux-style aggregation, in which young writers destroy the savor of interesting stories and an interesting world by constantly regurgitating the news with added bile. I've seen good writers driven to this exhaustion. I've participated in firing them for burning out.
BuzzFeed, one of the success stories of Web publishing, is often caught simply repurposing content generated by Reddit users and captures lots of revenue by putting crappy writing under looping movie clips. So, in this instance, MacArthur's lament is a perfectly legitimate point.
MacArthur's last point combines with his other observation about people blowing off steam. Web publishing generates a different experience and a different culture than print publishing. Think of the reader's experience. People subscribe to magazines because they like the content. The very act of investment in a subscription encourages readers to enjoy and respect the content that is delivered to them.
Web publishing, on the other hand, involves serving up dishes that people enjoy spitting out and spitting on. Rather than the culture of devotion and membership fostered by magazines and papers, the Web encourages a culture of hate-reading.
We are all aware of this. In the same week that Web writers were blowing off steam on their weblogs and LOLing all over their keyboards at John MacArthur's "Luddite" views, they were sharing an impassioned argument against Web comments by Nicholas Jackson of Pacific Standard.
But Web comments are one of the distinctive innovations of Web journalism. Instead of editors gathering a tiny selection of subscriber letters to print in a follow-up edition, any reader on the Web can pop a vein or a hemorrhoid right underneath the efforts of professional writers. It's an extremely democratic innovation, and it is a direct product of Web writing. Are we the Luddites now? Or are we just exhausted?
Irish columnist John Waters diagnosed another problem with this new economy of hate-reads: "Because everything written specifically for online consumption is written in the expectation of addressing a hostile community, the writing process demands, as a prerequisite, either a defensive or antagonistic demeanor."
That defensiveness is expressed as smarminess, and the antagonism as snark. Does this make writers worse? It's an open question. Bill Simmons, Drew Magary and Lindy West seem to have developed wonderful authorial voices that are Web native. The rest of us, I'm not so sure. I strongly suspect internet publishing and internet reading flatten the voices of writers in the same way that radio and television flatten the diversity of accents.
At the risk of sounding precious, a reading-and-response culture of "sick owns," "fisking," and "LOLzy burns" shared immediately on social media may be so different from the one that birthed and sustained The Nation, The Atlantic, and Harper's in the 20th century that we can forgive MacArthur for thinking of them as different at a species level.
Is MacArthur glorifying the culture of print a tad? Of course. Web publisher Henry Blodget tells his employees that one of the challenges of the medium is that you have to get people to read you. The New York Times can drop a million words on your front stoop, only to have them pass through the living room to the recycling bin without ever being read. All the prestige of being a Times subscriber, with none of the hassle of actually reading it. On the Web, publishers know what you are reading.
Our technologies shape our habits, and our work is a product of those habits. Edith Wharton wrote letters to her lover Morton Fullerton and mailed them. Pen, paper, and the postman were the technologies that produced florid, emotional missives, full of internal narrative. I once wrote love letters to my future wife during my summer vacation. But that was in 1999, before we had cell phones and texts. Can we have any doubt that the smartphone has changed the way lovers communicate, and that this collapse of distance changes the content? Would you call Wharton a helplessly out-of-touch Luddite if she refused to deem your texts "love letters"?
Surely some people are tapping little sonnets into iMessage, just as BuzzFeed and Grantland and TheWeek.com produce journalism that resembles MacArthur's ideal. But these may be habits and idiosyncrasies left over from another age. It remains to be seen if they'll translate into the Web over the long term.