The Problem with Journalism in the Drive-By Era

Over the holiday weekend, I started and finished a really good book called Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker.

Joseph Mitchell was a writer who moved from his hometown in North Carolina to New York in the 1920's, found work at a variety daily newspapers and then landed a pretty sweet gig on staff at the New Yorker.

In his time, Mitchell would go on to become particularly well-known for his rather colorful portrayals of a handful of New York characters (some of which are still fodder for discussion, as evidenced by this exhaustive Vanity Fair piece from last year).

Mitchell lived in New York, breathed New York and wrote about New York. He was partially responsible for inventing what we now call literary journalism, or just flat out what might be called magazine journalism.

Anyway, to make a long story really short, Mitchell was rather prolific in his early career, and then in the 50's, not very prolific at all. He wrote 5 stories, all of which were extremely well-received, then didn’t write anything again for the rest of his career. He became known in magazine circles for coming to work every day for 30 years, despite the fact that he never published much of anything.

And yet there is still a book about him now, in 2015, nearly 20 years after his death, because he was that good while he was alive. The part of this that is interesting is the level of intrigue about what he was doing for the 30 years, and this sort of question mark about whether or not he left anything behind.

What journalist or writer nowadays — someone birthed in the internet era — could possibly die and there be any interest in their unpublished work? Maybe Bill Simmons and… Bill Simmons. I can’t really think of anyone else. Nobody gives a shit about writers.

I’m obviously dramatizing here but the demand for new work from writers and journalists does not seem extremely high. If it exists at all, it’s very small.

We have become a culture of non-readers, and our appetite and available time to dig into explorative pieces of writing, is just not there. According to a recent Cisco report, 80% of the internet will be video in 5 years.

The writing for writing is written on the wall. Or is it?

There’s a lot of great writing out there these days and you can find it in the same places you always found it. Magazines. Books. Sometimes on the internet. More often than not these days, on the internet.

The problem is that unlike the magazines that have dedicated years to building brand equity around great writing and great storytelling, the websites that often get involved with longform stuff these days are doing it after the fact.

Take Buzzfeed, for example, which basically the only company anyone can think of now when talking about new media businesses. Buzzfeed does some great work but their core business was built on a different type of editorial product — lists, quizzes and short news updates — so sandwiching in these longform articles is fine, and they’ve been at it for some time, but you probably still don’t think of Buzzfeed as a harbinger of good writing or good taste (even if it has done a good job that).

Meanwhile, you would never think of the New Yorker, for example, as anything but great writing (even if you might have your issues with it). Generally, you think of writing and the New Yorker in the same vein. You do not think of quizzes or lists or any silly shit, despite the fact that the New Yorker does its own version of silly shit now.

The point is, if you’re a company that relies on social media to drive attention to your editorial products, there is a fair chance that people are coming for one specific item, and then they are leaving. Someone sends them something or they see a status update — a newsy thing, a conversation, something to engage with — they click and keep it moving.

But if you build your audience around one specific thing and don’t get involved with trying to be everything to all people, there is something to be expected in that relationship between you and your reader. There is a bond that forms there. People come to expect certain things. And that’s fine. Most legacy brands today are around specifically because they do one thing really well. Coca-Cola may own a million companies, but the formula for Coke never changes. You buy a Coke, you know what you’re getting.

What I took from reading the Mitchell biography was that here was a guy who did something really well in a magazine that was known for delivering writing like that, consistently. And even though he essentially disappeared from the pages of the New Yorker for 30 years, the people who read the magazine still came to expect the same thing they’d been getting, ever since the company launched in 1925. And so there was a relationship there. Readers knew who he was, knew his stories and his absence was felt.

The internet and new media companies are still very young and the pressure to produce is impossibly high, but if these companies can settle on doing one thing or a few things reasonably well, consistently, maybe there is a future in it after all.

The general thinking is that the core pool of people who would go to any site consistently enough to build a business around is not large enough to sustain a real operation, and maybe there is some truth to that. The internet as it has existed thus far has been all about frequency and volume, but very rarely about quality. It’s just been scale scale scale, eyeballs eyeballs eyeballs.

Which is fine, to a degree, but that can only so far and look, there are only going to be x amount of people who are interested in x amount of things, and maybe the goal should be to cater to that x amount, adjusting business goals and arrangements as they seem fit along the way. When it comes to content, going for scale over quality seems to be the best way to fuck yourself. You might please advertisers or the people who are funding you, but you won’t please your readers.

Or, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about and this is a bunch of nonsense, which is a very plausible scenario.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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