Do Writers Still Need Publishers?

February 20, 2013 Topic: Media Blog Brand: The Buzz

Do Writers Still Need Publishers?

Once upon a time, some publishers thought that the proven business model for newspapers and magazines would slowly transition from print to the electronic medium. Things didn't quite play out that way. Many established media companies failed to foresee that the new medium of the internet would create disruptive new formats that would upend the old model. Exhibit A is the blog (a term which only entered the rarified lexicon of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999). But another related yet different format deserves more attention.

Unlike the quick commentary that is the staple of the blog, the aggregator focuses primarily on pointing users to content from other sources. Some such as the Drudge Report link to news headlines, while others like the RealClearPolitics family of sites provide links organized by topic. The Browser is a general interest aggregator that emphasizes quality over quantity. The site's editor, former journalist Robert Cottrell, writing in the Financial Times, recently gave a fascinating look into what he is doing as an aggregator—and what the rise of the format means for journalism:

I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader, by which I mean the demographic that, in the mainstream media world, might look to the Economist, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs or the Atlantic for information. Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.

Each day I seek my six pieces with these criteria in mind: would I go out of my way to recommend this piece to one of my own friends? Will it inform and delight the intelligent general reader? Will it still be worth reading a month or a year from now?

Cottrell points out that the old newspaper model (which tells us that yesterday's paper is useless), along with the internet's constant demand for the fresh and seemingly novel, has created a sad situation in which "we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing." He laments the first-rate piece "that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun." This seems particularly apt when it comes to a long-form piece that may have been in the works for months, and yet to the dismay of its author is considered stale in less than a week.

This phenomenon of the self-destructing piece is all the more frustrating if one accepts that long-form journalism, whether consumed in bound printed form or on an iPad, generally still requires the kind of resources—both financial and editorial—that traditional publishers provide. On this point, Cottrell seems overly optimistic about the potential for eliminating the role of the publisher:

[I]t seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

This direct model may work for the blog format—Cottrell cites Andrew Sullivan's recent decision to go independent—but it ignores the value added by the traditional editorial process that serious publications still provide. When it comes to a long-form piece that is months in the making, many topics originate with editors. And most pieces go through multiple revisions that refine and polish, all in an attempt to achieve the highest shine possible.

There has always been some form of aggregation in journalism, though it used to go by other names: syndicated columns or wire services, for example. The difference today is how easy the web makes it to hang out a shingle and become an aggregator, no AP subscription required. Readers should be thankful that so many have taken on the task, because there has never been such a growing mountain of data to sort through. And yet it seems unlikely that there will be as much quality content to aggregate without publishers and editorial staff ensuring that the next long-form viral hit sees the light of day in the first place.