Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Crapping in our own nests

Although the word has become a cliche worth avoiding, the word schadenfreude (the enjoyment of the discomfort of others) may perhaps need to be joined by a new word (suggestions gratefully received) that explains the phenomenon in which people who earn all or most of their livings from the publishing industry obtain open or secret glee from trumpeting its demise. In other words, taking glee from your own discomfort.

In the past few weeks, there have been dozens, hundreds, of articles online, in broadcast and in print that have taken as a given that print is dead, dying or crippled and that this is inevitable, total and absolute and predictable. Much of that is hogwash. A good deal of it is self-serving. (I am thinking, for example, of Jeff Jarvis's harping on an issue that can only help to sell more copies of his books asking "What Would Google Do?".)

Now this blog is buckled pretty tightly to the Canadian magazine industry and therefore could be said to have a strong, vested interest in its continued health. I also say this as someone who is realistic and keeps a weather eye out for trends in this business. But I had never expected that the trend was to be a sort of collective suicide. The reasons for the conventional acceptance and widespread propogation of the 'print is dead' view is largely that this negativity is promoted by the very people who should a) know better and b) be doing something positive about it. I'm not suggesting that we should suppress news or information. There are huge changes going on and the economy sucks and will suck more before this is over. But what I want to know is why there seems to be so much glee in crapping in our own nest.

I try to be judicious in this blog's coverage of various closures, meltdowns, layoffs, mergers, banruptcies etc. Some readers may feel it is hypocritical to report such things then lament the effect. But at least I feel guilty about it, and take no joy in it. If the public and media buyers and our readers conclude that they shouldn't have any investment in this business because clearly we don't, then who's to say they're wrong?

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the current issue of Vanity Fair and a commentary by Graydon Carter:

If this is the Second Great Depression, or the Great Retrenchment, or the Great Reckoning, or whatever it’s going to be called, there has to be a silver lining somewhere. Perhaps all those expensive educations and burning talents that wound up on Wall Street moving money around will be redirected to fields of endeavor with some tangible output. In the years between 1929 and 1939, creative talent in the U.S. flowered as in no other period of the last century. The 30s, a decade of devastating hardship for so many, was also the golden age of art, photography, theater, and film. In New York City alone the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center were built during the 10 years beginning in 1929. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Frick, and the Guggenheim all opened their doors during this period. And many of our great magazines, including Fortune, Life, Newsweek, and Esquire, were started during the decade. After the collapse of Wall Street in the 1920s, the culture stopped being all about money, and the country survived and ultimately flourished. Amid the wreckage we’ve created, America will most certainly rise again, and it might even be a better place to live and dream.

10:01 pm  
Blogger Leah Sandals said...

Interesting post. I too have been surveying the many articles about the demise of the news business in general and print in particular.

To a certain extent they do reassure me in that strange, schadenfreudesque way that times are tough.

But I also appreciate your point that some kind of motion towards a solution is needed. Even today I was thinking while in line for coffee that I'd really miss having a printed newspaper should they all evaporate one day. I love online media, as do all information junkies, but there's something about print that remains its own valued experience.

Certainly some blogs and websites have been effective at generating cash--and not just from venture capital, but from ads. It just requires a bit of a different business mentality from print sales--like Google, maybe enabling/systematizing microadvertising by many rather than full-page spreads by a few is part of making it work.

At the same time, there are some incredibly popular sites that have difficulty "monetizing" (hate to use that word) their unique clicks. So help in terms of sales are needed there, rather than help for circ.

Of course, as surveyors of the mag industry, it would be great to hear Canadian Magazines's opinions about what seems to be working, or what you think could work.

Happy (?) New Year!

10:26 pm  
Blogger Rob said...

Well said, sir. I often wonder why my colleagues seem want to drive me to getting an anti-depressant prescription.

12:20 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Publishing on any level doesn't impress like it used to unless you've gotten rich and famous from it. The feedback loop has gotten smaller and fewer opportunities to feel special for being involved in the industry. The egos that kept things humming have been deflated, but it doesn't feel good.

10:13 am  
Anonymous Craig Silverman said...

With respect, I think it's unfair to suggest that Jeff Jarvis (disclosure: he's a friend of mine) is a negative voice in the discussion about the future of the press.

He's certainly frank about the need to look to new methods of reporting and publishing in order to move journalism ahead, but he's more about action than whining or negativity. He teaches an entrepreneurial journalism course at a CUNY that offers money to help young journalists develop new ideas for the industry, and advises organizations such as The Guardian and news-related start-ups like Publish2 and DayLife, amoung others.

As for his upcoming book, it offers ideas about applying the fundamentals of Google's business and philosophy to journalism. Is that such a terrible thing?

Jeff can do a fine job of defending himself, but I want to speak up because I don't think he'll see this post.

Aside from that, I agree that we have get away from obsessing about the imminent death of some forms of journalism. That certainly doesn't mean we ignore the challenges faced by journalists and the journalism business, but a conversation about solutions is more more interesting and productive.

As for "why there seems to be so much glee in crapping in our own nest" there's the element of navel gazing: we love to write about our own industry. (Just look at Jack Shafer's take on this: http://www.slate.com/id/2206854/").

But I also think there's an element of shock or surprise; people in the business never expected it to get so bad so quickly.

11:28 am  
Blogger D. B. Scott said...

Jarvis was but one example, however I must say that as someone who has read his postings (Buzz Machine) and his Guardian column on a regular basis that my view is different from yours. I find his perspective quite judgmental and dismissive of anyone who doesn't agree with him wholly. Anyone who doesn't subscribe to his thesis is dismissed as recalcitrant when, in fact, things are quite confusing, turbulent and unclear. I simply felt that somebody should say that outside critics need no help from industry insiders in trashing print, publishing and traditional media.

I agree with you that the negativity is partly a product of shock and surprise.

12:11 pm  
Anonymous Martin Seto said...

We all know about the challenges facing the magazine industry. This development has been happening for years and we should not be surprised and the media hype of this fact is now made louder to the magazine industry in Canada. I have a saying “ Market Dynamics are the agent of change” and change is now upon us. Being in the front lines selling advertising, I witnessed this first hand when I was working with the Linux Journal, a B2B IT pub, in The USA as I saw a shift from print to online. I had a client that was doing double page spreads and stopped advertising in favour of a pay per click program that was cheaper than print by 10x factor. This I called the “Google effect” as they took the print budget and became my chief competitor.

As publishers responded to this new threat with online programs that included banner ads, publishers websites do not have enough inventory to compete effectively with Google’s millions of impressions per second while a Canadian publisher has 3 ads spots that generate 100,000 adviews each per month. With clickthrough rates of 0.1% would require 100,000 adviwes to generate 100 clicks. At $1.50 per click this is a small revenue source for publishers.

So what is the next step in protecting the magazine brand in today’s marketplace? Instead of venting about how bad it is we should take action as an industry to stop the "Google Effect". Who is game?

2:04 pm  
Blogger jeffjarvis said...

Thanks, Craig; I couldn't have said it better myself. D.B.: I say what I think. And here's what I think on this: It's a mistake to assume that talking about the end of print is glorying in the end of what's on it. I teach journalism; I celebrate it; I want to do everything I can (and my students can) to transform it and make it grow. So I'm not saying I want to kill print. I'm saying I want to see journalism survive and prosper and I believe that is possible and necessary even without print. That's different from setting a match to apepr.

3:40 pm  
Blogger D. B. Scott said...

My original post was lamenting the fact that people inside magazines seem to be their own worst enemies when it comes to talking down the business. Perhaps I was misled by Jarvis's style into thinking he was gleeful about it. But, to give but one example, when Jeff Jarvis lauds as a "great line" someone else's views about this "crappy industry", my feeling is that he has to wear it.

4:21 pm  

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