For a Delacorte Lecture I gave in 2012, I described what I viewed as a headlong rush toward digital self-destruction in the publishing and journalism world. I criticized the jargon of the “free content” salesmen and their allies at Google, Facebook, and The Huffington Post. And I appealed to the larger community of writers and publishers to counterattack—to fight to save their craft, and their livelihoods, by rejecting the “digital publishing model” in favor of the older system of getting paid a fair price for the hard work of writing and reporting.
Ironically, that lecture went viral on the internet, via the non-paywalled New England blog of The Providence Journal, a newspaper for which I write a monthly column. I obviously don’t oppose the existence of the internet, or “hate” it, as some of my critics claim. It has its uses, especially as an efficient ordering mechanism. But I do seriously doubt that it will ever be an effective way to present a magazine to readers. For all the violent reaction, both pro and con, my speech did little to change the financial landscape that I believe is wrecking the media business. The free-content fanatics ridiculed me as a Luddite, while beleaguered writers tended to praise me. More important, among the dozens of emails and handwritten notes I received, none of them, as far as I can recall, included an offer to buy a subscription to Harper’s Magazine.
This troubled me, since one goal of my lecture was to raise people’s consciousness about the current plight of journalists, and of magazine and newspaper publishers. I concluded that my thesis needed refining, and thus came about my essay in the October 2013 issue of Harper’s. This piece aimed to persuade rather than provoke. I hoped it would start a discussion that might lead to the restoration of the fundamental relationship between writers and readers, unmediated by advertisers and unpolluted by the demands of publishers and editors pressed to conform to the often mindless whims of the marketplace. To support my thesis I cited no academic studies, no business school papers, just my own experience and Maxwell Perkins’ advice to Ernest Hemingway that “the utterly real thing in writing is the only thing that counts, + the whole racket melts down before it.”
Writers and readers are beginning to realize that internet publishing, including free content, is another version of The God That Failed.
Now I’d like to elaborate on that essay. In some ways, things have only gotten worse. It is a frightening sign of the times that, to save money, New York magazine, an iconic weekly, has gone biweekly, and Ladies’ Home Journal, a monthly founded in 1883, has switched to quarterly publication. I am even more disturbed to learn that my old college paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, wants to go to weekly publication and devote more energy to its so-called digital focus. Google continues its scorched-earth march through copyright territories once controlled by publishers and writers, while Amazon puts more bookstores out of business and buys The Washington Post. And then there’s the very well reported story in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Who cares if it’s true?” I found it depressing to read in the article about all those good people at the York Record, a Pennsylvania daily, trying so hard to keep a stiff upper lip while trying to make the digital-print mix work. Their jobs, unfortunately, sound almost insane in their shredded, unfocused complexity. The bottom line is this, according to the writer Marc Fisher: “In the Record newsroom, veterans and newcomers alike care a great deal about truth and standards. But the Record’s ambition is diminished, its daily coverage less comprehensive. The editors proudly showed me the stellar project work they’ve done of late—a series on diabetes; an admirable, long-term commitment to chronicling the travails of returning war veterans—but any notion of full, regular coverage of the region’s towns, once the Record’s core function, has fallen away.” Meanwhile, print advertising continues to decline industry-wide.