One of our most popular stories all week has been David Holmes’s report about how Tumblr wants to pay for journalism. And not just cat pictures, re-written press releases, or 300 word snark-fests by junior reporters paid $12 a post. This isn’t another content farm. They want real, actual New Yorker-style long form journalism.
This is great news….mostly.
For a long time, I’ve said that I thought the reason journalism was reeling was its own fault. Daily papers had a de facto monopoly — on news, classifieds, movie listing, stock quotes, sports scores, and all types of content. And yes, the Internet destroyed it. But if daily newspapers in aggregate, had been good stewards of that role in the community, people would still have read them. Most daily papers, instead, were like the one from my hometown: more daily than a newspaper. Like paying with the cable company, no one particularly loved reading it, but there wasn’t another option for getting all those things I describe above delivered to you daily.
Simply put: It was easy and cheap for a lot of other players on the Web to outdo daily newspaper journalism for cheap or free. And that lead to a wave of massive commodification of news. But those glimmers of really great storytelling and investigative work that weren’t in the paper every day were ravaged as part of the shift. And there was no clear way to replace it. Good content isn’t free — as anyone who struggles to write it or hire good talent knows.
I’ve always been confident that it would become valued again one day, and the market would figure out a way to pay for it — either by non-page view based ads or subscriptions. But I felt that as an industry we had a period of penance for that abuse of a monopoly position, maybe our own 40 years of wandering in the desert.
Well, that was a short 40 years. It seems good quality work has come raging back into vogue. There are a handful of upstarts the raison d’être of which is reporting, writing, and long form work — we’re part of that, as is NSFWCORP, and even The Verge produces some long spectacularly written stuff. Meanwhile you have companies you’d least expect investing in it. Buzzfeed, which already enjoys a schizophrenic life as a purveyor of cat photos and political scoops, announced it’s going to focus on long-form journalism, and now Tumblr, which isn’t even a content company, is getting in on the act.
So much of this boils down to one big change in the Internet: A lot of companies are being built out of New York. New York loves, will pay for, values, and excels at producing quality content in a way that Silicon Valley never will. And, at least in our experience, audiences are gulping it down like water in a desert.
In our recent reader survey almost every respondent answered why they read PandoDaily with a variation of the following: Long form content that isn’t afraid to call out powerful people. When we asked what could make the site better, I was surprised that several people actually said longer content. And these aren’t just those six hundred people who have time to fill out a survey. Our 2,000-3,000 word stories consistently drive the most traffic, and have for our eight-month existence.
So people want to pay for long form journalism, and readers want to read it. Wow, suddenly journalism isn’t so dead, right? Not so fast. There’s still one big problem here: Who the hell is going to write all this brilliant New Yorker style prose?
The Internet is still a leveling bitch on dysfunctional industries. This is hardly a free-for-all; readers will only read long form content, if it’s excellent. As Jonah Peretti talked about at our PandoMonthly with him last month, the benefit in this rush to quality journalism is that the very best people can make great salaries to do great work again. But the catch is, you have to be great.
And unfortunately the last six years or so of commodity free content on the Web and shrinking newsrooms in old media has conspired to destroy the bench of good, investigative journalists and long form story tellers. These simply aren’t disciplines you’re born with and there hasn’t been a demand to train people in it.
The upbringing I had in journalism — working for small publications before I could get to a bigger publication, getting destroyed in edits for years, writing and rewriting everything I ever did, getting every single sentence ripped to shreds by brutally honest editors, demanding that I find more sources to back up any claim, six months of chewing over a cover before it could run — that’s all largely an anachronism today.
In old media, this was driven by necessary cost cuts up and down the chain. Magazines default to hiring the freelancers who already know how to do this well than having large staffs of people to mentor and be mentored, even as that pool of talent shrinks. Even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times — long the destinations after years of struggle — hire far greener staffs than they did in my era and let them make mistakes and struggle on the job, or in a pinch, just be bloggers primarily. These people are cheaper and, truth be told, work harder. And the farm system of journalism — all those networks of respectable dailies doing good work in smaller cities — has been decimated.
That brings us to new media. By and large the first era of blogging was about speed and volume. And speed and volume do not allow for mentorship, building sources, or investing in writing and editing. The sad reality is that blogging has given a generation of talented voices a big stage and a loose leash to build a name for themselves far quicker than they could have before. But almost none of them know how to be great reporters or great writers. Even the best bloggers of our age would lose their minds if they had to freelance a piece for, say, The New Yorker. There’s a level of de rigueur editing that yields what is known as “a New Yorker-style piece” that they just couldn’t imagine.
Simply put: Without a system that trains people how to do a New Yorker style piece, there are none for Tumblr and Buzzfeed to commission, nothing for those readers who so badly want it to soak up. We’ve got the money and the demand, but a disastrous paucity of supply.
Within 10 years, the industry’s biggest challenge has been totally inverted. Before, we had all this talent and no one to pay for or read it. Now, it’s just the opposite.
I know how acute this is because hiring people who can do this kind of work has been my single biggest challenge running this company. We’re lucky enough to have several of those classically trained voices as part of our team now: Including Farhad Manjoo, Kevin Kelleher, Adam Penenberg, and me. But hiring them hasn’t been easy or cheap. And tellingly, we share something in common: We’re all old. Meanwhile, we’ve taken to training and mentoring smart younger people with varying levels of experience. It’s not an accident I hired an editor who’s not only a great journalist, but also a professor at NYU’s journalism school. For us to succeed, we don’t just need to pay up for good talent. We need to do what so few publications have done for recent years: Teach.
And journalism won’t survive this digital dark age unless other publications do the same.
[Image courtesy wikimedia]