Post-Journal Journalism (Part 2)
Deca’s Marc Herman on why journalists are stepping up to innovate
In case you missed Part 1, we interviewed Marc Herman, one of the nine journalists involved with Deca. The collective is working not just to create high quality journalism independent of the support of any publication, but it wants to build a successful business model on the back of it too. For anyone following the as-yet-less-than-revolutionary innovations in publishing, it’s hard to say which of these sounds more ambitious.
Below Mark talks about the stasis in the publishing industry, and the from-the-ground-up restructing Deca are doing to make long-form articles standalone.
So you don’t necessarily have to perform like a newspaper printed by a publicly funded company would. Do you feel like you can pursue something other than entertainment? Like, is the goal to produce quality journalism?
Yeah, it is. But I don’t think the issue is entertainment. I guess there used to be this idea that there was something necessarily wrong with being engaging in some way. There was this notion that, and again we’re talking fifteen years ago, that some stuff was junk food and some was your vegetables, and you’ve got to eat your vegetables.
I never got that because when you go back and you read the really engaging stuff, it absolutely stands on its own as attention-grabbing. There’s articles in magazines in the 70s and 80s and 90s and now that will holdup perfectly well — even if you put on the TV and Breaking Bad was playing. You wouldn’t necessarily put down the magazine and look at the TV, because the magazine story was really good, so you’d keep reading it.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to get someone’s attention. There are these extreme Fleet-Street-type things that go too far, but the first story that Mara Hvistendahl did stands up as a story. It also stands up as journalism, but you keep turning pages because you want to know what happened. That’s great.
So when I hear someone ask ‘What is our potential reader?’ I don’t see anything wrong with saying ‘This is someone who wants to be told a story,’ the same way we do when we go to the movies or anywhere else. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that — it’s not necessarily a competition. When Life Magazine was very important in the United States so were the movies. We did everything.
I just don’t buy that our attention spans are whittled down to zero and all of the rest of this stuff. I don’t know, I don’t feel particularly extraordinary, and I still read books. Did anybody ever read 100 books a year? There was always that one guy in high school. But as soon as electronic media existed, as soon as television existed, the central role of these things started to go away. Maybe just more evident now with digital media but it doesn’t feel any different to me. I mean, what do we talk about on digital media? We talk about other writing. So what’s the problem exactly?
I hope this works. I’m glad to see someone innovating with the advantages of being established, and if it works it’ll be an amazing thing for everyone else.
Part of it comes down to the business of publishing not responding to this stuff. We had a story — I drew the short straw so I wrote it — that was on Matter yesterday asking “Why are we doing this?”
It really just comes down to the fact that something needed to be done, and it seems like the writers are doing it, just like the musicians did it when the business model of the recording industry changed, and just like the visual artists did it around galleries, and just like the photographers did it in 2000/2001 when the agencies started changing their business model to the great disadvantage of photographers and started to make that career almost impossible as a business proposition.
Our question isn’t ‘why is it always people on the creative side that have to push these gigantic institutions that even now still have comparatively enormous budgets’, but ‘why are we doing all of this work when they could go and for, what would be considered a couple of months lunch bill for them, try to do some research and development?’
I mean, in some ways, if you applied what’s happening in publishing to any other industry, every CEO would be fired the next day. Cars or soap or furniture or real estate or anything — if you just sat there and said ‘Our customers must just be stupid because they’re not buying our things anymore,’ you’d just fire the guy.
In publishing you’re considered this sort of twee throwback, a heroic defender of traditional values. Well, there’s nothing romantic about the idea of the starving writer. I’m done with that. Why am I starving? I mean, I’m not starving, but why is it such a struggle to be writer, and why has it always been such a struggle when we’re clearly producing value that holds up a very large industry? Well, it’s because the industry doesn’t work very well for the people who produce the books. So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that at some point we start looking for other solutions.
I guess part of your experiment is breaking out the work you do that would normally be part of a magazine into its own thing, and see how that stands up as its own sellable-thing for readers.
What magazines used to do was compete as places where you could find everything. You would start at the front, then you’d have what they called the well, where the long stories were, and then there’d be this cute thing at the back like an interview with somebody, and at the end you’d had this interesting experience and you’d learned something about what happened that week. And then you were done. But if you were really voracious you’d subscribe to maybe two or three of these because you wanted this experience more than once. Each one was its own little world and you could from the beginning to the end and be happy and be done — your story of the week was told.
You started seeing in the 90's, even before digital, this trend of magazines that would say… I don’t know, there was one called Modern Ferret for people who owned ferrets, and then there would be one for hunters of a very particular animal. And then the web comes along so they say ‘Let’s do that.’ They have a website about, I don’t know, ‘high design chairs,’ and another website about ‘English premier league soccer’ and so on and so forth. Very few of these magazines could compete with that. I guess the New Yorker still can because the Talk of the Town is an institution and all that, but for the most part the model falls apart — we took it apart long before digital.
So what are we doing? If our job before putting this group together was trying to fill those well stories in the middle, and those magazines aren’t really there anymore because nobody really wants that whole experience in 72 pages — because you go to nfl.com to read about football, and then to Google news where you read about Justin Bieber — if that’s not going to happen anymore, then where do these stories go? We have to think of something else. So this is what we thought of.
This is part two of our interview with Marc Herman. Keep going with part three.