That said, the downside to publishing subpar content is certainly shrinking. Once upon a time, if you read a bad story in a certain publication, that would color your view of the whole enterprise. That’s no longer the case: in a world where websites are insatiable, there are precious few publications of consistent excellence. As Kinsley says, almost no one achieves good writing most of the time — but once upon a time, editors could and did simply spike material which wasn’t good enough. Nowadays, less-than-great copy tends to get published anyway, since websites have no space constraints and the old excuse about how “we ran out of pages” doesn’t hold water any more.
The real cost of publishing dull content is not that readers will be put off your brand. Instead, it’s an opportunity cost: rather than getting Norman to churn out ill-informed blog posts on ostrich farming and fracking, might it not be better to put him to work honing and editing the work of someone else, helping to create the next viral story about how your cat might be turning you into a schizophrenic?
The economics, however, still don’t add up. For reasons I don’t fully understand, high-quality edited journalism is not a little but rather a lot more expensive than more-is-more blogging. McAuliffe probably got paid somewhere in the region of $1.50 a word for her piece, which works out at $8,800; by the time you add in the cost of salary and benefits for everybody who worked on it, plus the expenses involved in flying her to Prague to report it, you’re talking enough money to get a thousand blog posts out of Norman. Ex post, McAuliffe’s article is worth it. But it takes a bold cash-strapped publisher indeed (and all publishers are cash-strapped, these days) to choose a single heavily-reported feature over a thousand blog posts.
We still live in a world where the brand value of a venerable print publication has clout on the web. McAuliffe’s piece would never have garnered 500,000 pageviews in 36 hours had she published it on her personal website; instead, it both benefited from and helped to burnish the reputation of the Atlantic more generally. That’s a nice virtuous circle. On the other hand, a boring blog post which would never get attention on a random blog can get a decent four-figure number of pageviews just by dint of being published on the website of a print publication like the New York Times or the New York Observer. As a result, such publications are faced with a constant temptation to put up as much content as they can and monetize those pageviews, even if doing so slowly erodes their brand. Immediate cashflows, these days, tend to trump impossible-to-measure concepts like the degree to which brand value might be going up or down.
My expectation, then, is that we’re likely to see a lot of more-is-more journalism from established names like the Observer, even as the most successful online franchises, such as the Atlantic, increasingly invest in expensive, high-quality content. It’s the difference between managing decline and managing for growth. In an industry which is undoubtedly in secular decline, the former makes a lot of sense. And the latter, if it doesn’t work, can be incredibly expensive.
So while I’m extremely happy to see high-quality journalism reach a very large audience online, I’m far from convinced that we’re about to enter a golden age where publishers get rewarded for spending lots of effort and money on commissioning, editing, and publishing extraordinary content. The web is still a mass medium, and cats-make-you-crazy stories are hard to scale, while commodity content is much easier to replicate. If you want to get to half a million pageviews, you’re always much more likely to get there with a thousand blog posts than you are with a single swing for the fences.