The Internet is an amplifier for arseholes but to survive, magazines must learn to be open
The social media experts that cluster around Twitter like birds on a wire yelp away, singing the same tune most of the time: the new model is about the conversation. And for all the utter balderdash they spout about other aspects of the the online world, they’re right. But while newspaper sites and blogs have learned the value of comments and letting their reader into the editorial process to some extent, magazines largely haven’t.
Magazines, even if they have a presence online, tend to be closed worlds – there’s a clear distinction between the writers and editorial staff and the readers. Compiling the letters page in a traditional magazine is the job that gets passed around like its a rod of uranium smeared with excrement.
Nobody wants to wade through a collection of emails and badly scrawled notes in the hope of finding the three or four rational ones. A lot of the time, the majority of letters end up being written by someone on staff – a collective fantasy of a letters page created out of necessity. But no one seems to ask: why is the correspondence we receive so terrible?
Readers’ correspondence are often little more than a collection of complaints and the rants of the most unbalanced selection of the readership. But that’s a failing of the publication. Because if you’re creating an interesting, worthwhile product, you probably do have intelligent, interesting readers. You’re just not encouraging them to interact with you. Most of the time magazines have made very little effort to bring readers into the process of magazine making. There’s an assumption that they don’t really know all that much.
Every few years, magazine publishers and editors pull together a focus group (conducted with the undeclared aim of justifying whatever new redesign of the site or the magazine they’ve cooked up). Occasionally they sprinkle some “email us” tags at the end of articles or offer some kind of desultory prize for letter of the month. But they’re not actually asking readers to get involved – it’s a low-level, half-arse attempt to connect with them.
In most magazine offices, the reader becomes like an abstract figure. Yes there’s meetings where someone sticks up a picture of the hypothetical reader, yes there are discussions amongst sub-editors about whether that hypothetical reader will “get” a particular reference but by-and-large the reader is just this peripheral concept that’s there to keep you in a job. There’s a contempt for readers that jumps off the page of most magazines being made now. The paper is getting cheaper and thinner and the editorial is chasing after it.
The best publications (in any medium) speak with the voice that readers wish they were confident enough to have. The voice of the magazine is the idealised voice they wish they could speak with. It’s the cool best friend who tells them they are good enough and shows them the next thing as well as showing them the things they already know they love. The best magazines give their readers respect. In fact, creating a brilliant magazine can be boiled down to three words: “surprise and delight”.
So where does letting the reader into the process come in to all of this? Well, it’s not about simply sticking comments below your content or throwing all your articles up online. That can be part of it but not every piece of content can survive that. There’s talk that the Guardian is about to open up all its reviews to comments. That seems like a terrible idea. A review is a piece of subjective comment from someone taking a view on a piece of art. People will disagree with it but the debate that you’ll get beneath a review will always rapidly trend towards a denunciations of the writer for being wrong and denunciations of those who say the writer is wrong. It’s cultural criticism as a blood sport.
The model I’m talking about is a world where the structures behind the creation of a magazine are as exposed as the pipes of the Pompidou Centre. I’m saying let’s dismantle the Magic Circle and, for the most part, reveal how the tricks are done. Wired in the US has been at the forefront of this kind of approach with its Wired Storyboard podcast (which takes you behind the writing of several key features in each month’s issue) and experiments like its Charlie Kaufman article which documented its creation on a blog that then became part of the final piece.
There are obviously some types of journalism that cannot reveal their underbelly – war reporting and investigative pieces require a certain level of secrecy and obfuscation around methods. But almost every other element of magazine creation can be documented and made available, DVD extras to the main feature.
Ben Hammersley has written recently about creating systems where journalism is written with meta-data as a consideration from the start. I agree and see the whole process working like a good butcher’s shop – no part of the animal should go to waste. Interviews should be taped and available to be edited into accompanying audio elements, photo-shoots should be videoed. All the products of a magazine’s creative process should be available for readers to mash-together and remix.
The relevance and importance of the professional writer remains – as a guide to the subjects that matter and a skilled interpreter of information coming in from readers. Readers should be encourage to send in ideas, tip writers off about trends or experiences they have had. Look at the effectiveness of the two giants of American gadget blogging, Engadget and Gizmodo. Much of their success derives from bringing together a community of like minded individuals and encouraging them to contribute. Many of their stories and scoops come from ordinary readers.
It’s true that online comments can become dominated by the ignorant and extreme fringes but that is the same of any conversation. The Internet is an amplifier for arseholes. But as Jeff Jarvis has so eloquently explained in the past, publications should curate the valuable commenters and encourage the community to marginalise the negative and disruptive influences. That is no to say those people who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy but rather those who attack for the sake of attacking.
The magazines of the future will need more than translated to the enhanced user interfaces of tablet devices like the now almost mythical Apple Tablet. A change in philosophy among journalists and editors is required. It’s getting there but there’s still a long distance to travel.
Journalism will survive as a profession by championing the value of a great story and realising that great storytellers are willing to seek material from anywhere and to learn to adapt and interpret the stories of others.