Every few months or so we see some elitist from the "old way" in the media business pop up with some neo-luddite screed about how wonderful things were the way they used to be, and whining about these darn new media things that are happening. These are often fun in a sort of "batting practice" manner, as they offer up some easy fastballs to take some easy hacks on, but I have to step back and marvel at what I honestly think is the
perfect specimen of the genre. This time it's a piece by Harper's own publisher, John R. MacArthur, in which he rants at epic length about this fad known as the internet
. It really has almost every single silly trope in this species. Let's go down the trope checklist.
- Claim that you're debunking the statement "information wants to be free"? Check. Plus bonus trope of comparing tangible goods to information goods and thinking you've made a point? Check
Information wants to be free? So does food. But farmers aren't as stupid as certain publishers, journalists and ad salesmen.
Okay, look, can we just set a rule that says if you don't understand what Stewart Brand meant when he said "information wants to be free" (which contained a lot more nuanced argument) that you're not allowed to bring it up again? Or, could you at the very least note that most of the people you mock don't even say that, and it's much more commonly stated by neo-luddites who can't debate what the internet generation is actually telling them?
- Pretend that because you were not good at selling internet advertising that internet advertising is clearly forever pointless? Check
We would all get rich as we gave it all away to as many people as possible. The opposite was true - the Web chopped up the market for online advertising so finely that there wasn't enough to go around for the biggest publications most dependent on ads. And it turned out that while Web sites may be great for classifieds, they are in general a poor medium for display advertising.
Indeed. There was a lot more competition, and if you stupidly decided to just try to mimic offline ads online, well, then you're likely to fail. Just like if you merely mimicked radio ads on television, you would fail. But those who learn what the medium can actually do can do quite well. Last I checked, Google was making billions in online ads. So it seems that someone figured it out.
- Bring up a story of your times as a hard-bitten reporter back in the good old days in Chicago to prove your bona fides? Check
Decades ago, I learned how print on paper works without appreciating what I was being taught. More than 30 years ago, when I was a young general-assignment reporter on the Chicago Sun-Times, the copy-desk chief was a brilliant and acerbic man named Tom Moffett. Moffett thought that reporters were lazy wimps - he said that the really hard work took place on "the desk" - and he dared me one day at the Billy Goat Tavern (of "Saturday Night Live'' fame) to work for him. Was I man enough? Over my fourth Old Style I insisted that I was. The next day my city-desk bosses agreed, and I was loaned to the copy desk for six weeks as a kind of career-broadening internship.
Hey, it's story time down at old man saloon. I'll spare you the details of the story whose ostensible point is that newspapers sell ads and the content is just what goes in between. He could have just said that. But he didn't because this is the kind of story old journalists love to tell, because they think it makes them look cool. It really just makes them look out of touch.
- Assume that this ever-dynamic market is static and that advertising has "failed"? Check
I have been radicalized, as both a publisher and a writer, and have instituted a "protectionist" policy in regard to the Internet and its free-content salesmen. In the long run, I think I'll be vindicated, since clearly the advertising "model" has failed and readers are going to have to pay
First of all, the internet advertising model hasn't failed. For many folks it's doing quite well. So sorry to hear that Harper's is too clueless to learn how to use it effectively. Second, there are more models to make money beyond advertising and paywalls. He could hire some people to tell him about it, but he spends the rest of this screed railing against those who actually get the internet, so he may have trouble finding anyone who is that interested in guiding him out of his self-induced haze.
- Mock the quality of some online content, and assume that proves that all online content is bad? Check
However, as much as I object to free content, I am even more offended by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional, even anti-intellectual effect. Devotees of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But much of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness.
Learn to internet, John. Just because you seem unable to navigate your way to the tons of intelligent, insightful and thoughtful commentary and discussions online, it doesn't mean they don't exist. It just means you don't know how to use the internet. Which, come to think of it, may be the root of your problems.
- Set up some ridiculous arbitrary standard for what some random new media effort must do to be a success? Check
Have WikiLeak's disclosures on Afghanistan moved us any closer to withdrawal from that country?
So unless it meets your standard, it doesn't matter? Really?
- Refer to your own rejection of popular social media? Check
Long before I took myself off Facebook, I doubted the so-called revolutionary potential of the Internet.
You see, we know he's got cred because he was on Facebook, but now he isn't. He's a man who means business.
- Make sure you talk mockingly about the original dot com boom while showing you didn't understand it? Check
Lewis was born skeptical, but when he heard the three men at the next table discussing in hushed tones what sounded like easy money [concerning a dot com opportunity], he couldn't help himself and he inquired about how we could get in on the ground floor. "It depends," said one of them smoothly, "on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content." I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.
Oh my gosh. You ran into three idiots in a restaurant. I recently met a moron of a magazine publisher. That must mean all magazine publishers are idiots. Generalizations make you look stupid.
- Mention that the young people who work for you have suggested you get with the times, and then mock them in a chiding tone? Check
These youthful members of my editorial staff - one of them now the co-editor of Mother Jones Magazine - were imploring me, demanding even, that I meet the Internet revolution head on by posting free what they also described as "content" on our brand new Harper's Web site so that it might be consumed by a huge reading public supposedly dying to read our longish essays, reporting and short stories.
Perhaps your young staffers are going on to edit other publications because they want to work for publications that their friends actually read and which their peers have actually heard of. Increasingly, that's not Harper's.
As all of you who attended my last Delacorte lecture, 12 years ago, can surmise, what I told the staffers was, essentially, forget it. The Internet, I told them, wasn't much more than a gigantic Xerox machine (albeit with inhuman "memory"), and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and to the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.
- Mock older technologies while clearly not understanding their impact? Check
Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals - why buy a copy or pay for permission to reprint when you can copy one article or photo cheaper on a machine multiple times? - so I had good reason to beware.
Why pay? Oh, I don't know. Perhaps convenience. Perhaps patronage. Perhaps because photocopying is a pain in the ass. Seriously, did this guy just wake up after a five decade nap? The photocopier is the enemy of periodicals? Is he serious?
- Claim that an understanding of information economics means you're brainwashed? Check
Worse, the early Internet publishing promoters had brainwashed my employees into believing that we should not even resist their wondrous new photocopier - that on the contrary we should join them in a mass Potlatch ceremony that would result in a virtuous circle of wealth creation beneficial to all. I invoke potlatch - the gift-giving ritual of certain Northwest Indian tribes - because the Internet salesmen claimed, in sly mimicry of the indigenous tribesmen, that they were actually engaged in a redistribution of wealth that would result in reciprocal gift giving in the form of huge amounts of paid advertising.
Comparing information economics that you don't want to understand to an ancient Indian ceremony which you also don't understand does not constitute proving a point.
- Think that because some online advertising is intrusive and annoying, it's clearly no good> Check
Internet advertising is so annoying and obtrusive.
Indeed. So maybe try not to use such crappy ads.
When a display ad pops up on your screen and covers your free content, if you don't utter a profanity like I do, you delete it as quickly as you can or you switch to another Web site.
- Talk up the wonders of paper? Check
The advantages of advertising on paper become more obvious.
If you're basing your business model on the fact that some people might catch something out of the corner of their eye as they go to throw out their snail mail spam, you're in a dead business already.
Consider the behavior of ordinary people after the letter carrier makes what is increasingly an evening delivery. Once they've collected the mail, including magazines, catalogs, junk mail and newspapers, even the most ad-resistant, Web-addicted individuals will glance at some of the printed matter on the way to the garbage can.
- Make bizarre and ridiculous statements that show you're totally out of touch with the internet generation? Check
Customers may order online, but most of them are responding to a mailing or a printed ad and do not for the most part browse in online catalogs.
Wait, what? I can't remember the last time I looked at a mailing or printed ad and that made me decide to purchase. No, when I need to buy something I *gasp* go online and browse online stores and then make a purchase. As does just about everyone I know. MacArthur might want to talk to someone who hasn't started receiving their AARP cards before making statements like that one.
- Assume that because you still look at your paper mail, the younger generation does too? Check
Out of physical sight, out of mind. At some point you've got to turn off your computer or your iPad, but the mail and the brochures and printed matter just keep coming.
Actually, no, they don't. These days it's pretty easy to cancel a lot of physical junk mail, and even easier to dump it straight from the mailbox into the recycling bin. I see a lot more online advertising than print advertising. He follows up this statement by saying that advertising on the internet "is just too easy to avoid." That's true, but it assumes that advertising is the only way to make money -- and also assumes that there's no such thing as content-as-advertising, or advertising people want to see.
- Pretend you're really concerned about the "common workers" who just can't make ends meet? Check
But by and large, the condition of the freelance writer and midlist author is very bad. Ask any author or freelance journalist - even fairly successful ones - what's happened to their income in the past few years.
This seemed like an interesting challenge, so I sent an email to the most successful freelance journalist I know, Matt Villano. Just a few weeks ago, he'd been telling me about how he's got too much work to handle these days and I know that he's one of the hardest working, hustling-all-the-time freelancers out there. So I sent him that quote from MacArthur and asked for his reaction. After first asking if it could wait because he's busy working on one of his many freelancing gigs, he emailed back that he's easily "earning six figures (even after deductions) as a full-time freelancer." But part of that is because he puts in the effort, is constantly networking (especially online via his Twitter account) and isn't waiting for someone to just hand him work:
The rationalizers will keep a stiff upper lip and talk about their wonderful Web presence and the number of hits on their sites. But honest writers readily admit their loss of income -- smaller book advances, fewer commissioned articles, slower payments -- beginning even before the latest recession.
"There's plenty of work out there for freelancers. They just have to work hard to find it. Another key: Being nice. So many people get into this business with a sense of entitlement. That's the wrong attitude to have. Our job is to make life easier for our editors (whatever business they might be in). That means bending over backward to rework a piece, not complaining at ordinary edits, and doing whatever it takes to see a project to completion. Anyone can get a gig once. Not whining will get you gigs repeatedly."
Matt's work regularly appears in all sorts of publications -- the NY Times, the WSJ, Entreprenur Magazine, Parenting Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and tons more. Maybe MacArthur should try hiring him, rather than his usual crop of folks. He might learn something.
- Pretend that content creators today still need the old middleman or they flail around and die? Check
Book publishers are happy to exploit the distress of writers - they won't spend a nickel on promotion and very little on copy editing - but they will introduce you to a Web site designer and twitter your appearances at the local bookstore - that is, if there still is a local bookstore.
Yeah, see all that says is that the book publishers -- like magazine publishers -- are clueless old dolts, hopelessly out of touch. And it's why authors like JA Konrath and Barry Eisler are finding alternate routes to publish. They recognize that publishers don't promote much, and so they took matters into their own hands... and profited nicely because of it.
- Make a clueless statement about SOPA? Check
[Peter] Lerangis is a children's book author, his wife a musician, and their livelihood is directly threatened by online piracy, as well as the downward pressure on writers' income exerted by the huge amount of free content available online.
Oh my! A single quote from a clueless individual? Hey John, if I quote a content creator who was against SOPA -- or, say, a whole bunch of them, can we just pretend you didn't really assume a single uninformed individual is the be all end all of this debate?
As he correctly notes, "The anti-SOPA bluster has been framed by deliverers who give us the dazzling technologies that make our lives cool and their pockets deep.... To me, the anti-SOPA movement was nothing but a big corporate campaign in the guise of populism.... Big Tech's nonchalance about copyright violation tramples over people like my wife and me, who strive to make a living in the great tradition of the creative calm."
Or, just for fun, what if we bring up someone, like Louis CK, who found that it's possible to compete with "piracy" not by passing a stupid law that wouldn't help, but by not being a jackass to his fans.
- Pretend that because a few old line companies haven't made the transition to the modern era well, it means that an entire profession is doomed? Check
The New York Times and other companies did great damage to the cause of writing for a living with their free sites
No, basic economics took things away from an ivory tower world of gatekeepers and revolutionized it. More people make money today writing than at any time in history. That's an amazing thing.
- Insist that anyone claiming to make a profit online is lying? Check
One of my major magazine competitors is peddling the falsehood that it is now profitable thanks to a boom in online-advertising revenue. You have to know the economics of direct mail and the cost of mailing magazines to know how preposterous this contention really is.
I'm guessing he means The Atlantic, a publication that has run rings around Harper's over the last few years -- and (more importantly) actually matters to folks of my generation. It's also a publication that, yes, is profitable -- and got there by embracing not just the web, but lots of smart business models and revenue streams.
- Insist that profitable online publications don't exist? Check
As far as I know, there isn't a single profitable online-only magazine or newspaper in the United States and there isn't a single profitable newspaper or magazine with an online edition that is seriously considering dropping its print edition.
I realize that perhaps he's making an artificial distinction here between "magazines" and other online publications like a mere "blog", but I can assure you that Techdirt is profitable. And I know folks at an awful lot of other online publications that are also profitable. I guess we don't count.
- Totally economically clueless arguments? Check
The Internet "idea" of universal, democratic and free access to "content" unhindered by borders or fees corresponds with the 19th Century British economist David Ricardo's and political theorist's Richard Cobden's notions about a tariff-free world in which all people produce what they're best at, and as a consequence won't be motivated to start wars because they're so justly compensated for their labor.
Ricardo's theories on comparative advantage still do make a lot of sense today and have actually been proven time and time again. But holding up NAFTA -- which has been anything but a true "free trade" package (even though there have been many benefits that came out of NAFTA, contrary to MacArthur's typically ill-informed claims) -- and insisting that that proves Ricardo's theories are wrong is like pointing to a single snowstorm as evidence that climate change (in either direction) does or does not exist.
No such world has ever existed, and never will, but on this preposterous theoretical platform are built such "free-trade" pacts as the North American Free Trade Agreement that drive manufacturing to the cheapest labor locales along the Mexican side of the border, where no one is justly compensated, or to even-cheaper China, where labor racketeering (a conspiracy to fix the price of labor) occurs on a grand scale.
- Insist that people online are not meaningful in policy and political movements? Check
I suspect that the passion that drives successful political crusades is attenuated on the computer screen. All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste.
Yeah, because that whole Arab Spring thing never happened. And the SOPA/PIPA protests -- in which millions of people reached out to contact their elected officials (something he mocked earlier), clearly that didn't happen either.
- Mock any potential to change society by internet startups, because they're also for profit? Check
To see how empty is the "social" promise of Facebook, read Zuckerberg's interview not long ago in the Financial Times, which is all about making more money: "Every industry is going to be rethought in a social way - you can remake whole industries."
Since when are these two things mutually exclusive?
- Point to just a couple of print publications that focus only on print as proof that the internet is a fad? Check
But in my opinion, the strongest case against Web publishing currently resides in France, where two general-interest publications are defying the trends and the trendiness that has cost our business so much money and so many jobs.
Well, clearly, because those two specialist publications -- one a satire mag and the other a high-end quarterly -- have made a go of it, then that whole internet thing is over. Might as well just shut it down. He later cites Monocle magazine as well. We've actually used Monocle as a good example of giving people a reason to buy. They've designed a beautiful magazine with all sorts of unique physical features. If you can do that, then sure, physical is for you. But there's a limited market. I love how all internet advertising must be a failure, but a couple of offline publications succeed so that's our future.
- Vague anecdotal story about sullen young people behind laptops, rather than happily frolicking with paper magazines? Check
A few weeks ago, in a column headlined "Screened out and Isolated," he described the scene in a cafe in Venice Beach, California. Twelve similarly dressed customers, all with Macbook Airs, and half wearing headphones for silence. Not a single paper publication in site. "Everyone looked extremely serious," wrote Brule, "no sunny smiles on this stretch of the California coast. There was little looking up from their screens, a lot of manic typing and even more twisting of stray locks."
Well, damn. I was on the subway the other day, and a homeless dude was reading a crumpled up discarded magazine. He didn't look very happy. Clearly, print is dead.
- And, finally, a really dumb suggestion that everyone put up paywalls? Check
Put up paywalls on blogs, if you must blog, for pennies if that's all the market will bear. But at least hold fast to the principle that writing is work, that writing has value, and that writers should be paid.
This is a blog. It doesn't have a paywall. But we make pretty good money because of it. A paywall would kill this site. Perhaps some of us have figured out ways to make money online that MacArthur hasn't thought of yet.
Of course, we're happy to help him think through ideas on how to make money. But, you know, since he says that people should be paid, he'd have to pay us to share those ideas...