It's hard to imagine anything more perfect than Slate's decision to lay off its respected media critic Jack Shafer. Not perfect in a good way - I count myself amongst Shafer's legions of fans - but perfect in the way that Alanis Morissette not understanding the meaning of ‘Ironic' is perfect, or the way that a safety inspector falling out of a tenth story window would be perfect.
“I tolllldddd yyoooouuu sooooooo…”
I mean, what better illustration could there be of online media's woes than an ezine laying off its media critic because the economics of web content don't support a writer of his stature and specialism? At least Shafer can take some satisfaction in the fact that his departure is in and of itself an absolutely perfect piece of media criticism: Jack Shafer as both medium and message.
Slate's admission that, even with a minuscule staff of 60 and the financial “might” of the Washington Post company, it can't make money from online content is also perfect. The perfect opportunity, that is, to acknowledge once and for all that the grand experiment in free online content has failed.
Over on Forbes.com, Jeff Bercovici nails the problem thus…
“General interest is a pretty good concept for a physical product that gets delivered to your doorstep, where getting all those disparate sections bundled together makes sense. It's not such a great concept on the web. The web hates artificial bundles. If you're going to do a general-interest news product online, you have to be prepared to do it on the cheap, as Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington do (or at least used to do, in the latter case). Conversely, if you want to put out an expensively produced, professionally-edited product, it's better to stick to a niche, preferably one with a demographic that advertisers want to reach, like technology or business.”
…and he's right. Up to a point. In fact, many niche publications are feeling the pinch too. It wasn't long ago that Bercovici's own employer, Forbes, abandoned its status as a professionally written and edited financial publication and decided to style itself as a kind of HuffPost for finance; embracing cheap guest-posters regardless of what conflicts they might churn up. Meantime, it would be petty of me to name those of our rivals in the technology blogosphere who have embraced bullshit slideshows and top ten lists over their more costly cousins: actual fucking reporting. (So far TechCrunch's acquisition by AOL hasn't lead to our editorial arm having to choose between God and Mammon, but a cynic might say it's only a matter of time until we too are tested.)
The blunt truth is, online advertising is a numbers game. And, even on niche sites, the number of salable page impressions required to even break even is huge. There are just too many pages of content being produced for advertising to remain a viable long-term business model. The New York Times can't make money online, the Guardian can't, Slate can't and Salon barely can. As Bercovici points out, even Slate's attempts to launch verticals aimed at business readers, and women, were relative failures.
There are maybe two general-interest publications which can reasonably claim to have cracked the free content code: The Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. But in truth the only way those publications can afford to pay their growing armies of real, grown-up editors is by selling millions of pages of animal stories and celebrity fluff, churned out by underpaid hacks. (One day I want to produce a HuffPost slideshow of the best Daily Mail celebrity slideshows - it'll clean up.)
AND YET. It's easy to wail and moan about how the Internet is killing journalism, but that dystopian future only exists if we assume that the Internet is the only place that editorial content can possibly live. In fact, over the next five years or so what we're likely to see is a bifurcation in digital content.
On one side, those content producers who choose to stay on the free-and-open web will be forced into making more and more ethically dubious decisions to stay profitable. Out will go professional writers and church-and-state separation of content and commerce; in will come more Groupon-style “reader offers”, affiliate links behind every keyword and an Idiocracy of dumber and dumber linkbait. Ten ways to make extra income with Lady Gaga Sony Porn - Kittens!
But on the other side? The fact that the Economist's North American circulation has just reached its highest ever level tells us that the audience for quality content isn't going away. It also suggests that those of us who prefer our content unsullied by payola, and who appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted headline are turning our backs on the web. Increasingly the best writing and reporting is to be found in books and Kindle Singles, where readers are happy to pay directly for high-quality information and entertainment. As web content continues to get dumber, and more ethically compromised, the market for high quality content away from the web will continue to grow.
Of course, it would be idiotic to suggest that publishers should rush back to print, in the hope of emulating the Economist. But nor should they be wasting money publishing their content on the web. As any wildly profitable app developer will tell you, the web is a great marketing tool, but it's on dedicated portable devices that the real money, and attention spans, are found. A smart publisher looking to launch a new magazine today - focusing on business, technology, or just about anything else - would be wise to develop it specifically for e-readers rather than wasting more money chasing the dumb eyeballs of the web. Oh, and they should hire Jack Shafer. He's brilliant.