“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Dr. Johnson famously observed.
By the great wit’s reckoning, then, Your Author is deadwood from the neck up, since the cultural capital I’ve amassed through True/Slant, rubbing elbows with writers like Susannah Breslin and Matt Taibbi and learning from smart editors like Coates Bateman and Michael Roston, was easily the lion’s share of what made writing for the site so rewarding. That, and the rare opportunity to hook my writing desk up to an arena-strength P.A. system and rattle the Web with a 3,000-word post on whatever wild surmise or obscure obsession crossed my mind, commercial considerations be damned. Truth to tell, True/Slant’s monthly wage—like the fees most publications pay in an economy where downsized, overeducated hacks are in no short supply—is a token honorarium, compared to the glory days of freelance writing.
Obviously, those days are gone, maybe forever. Journalism and book publishing—reliable roads out of financial perdition for generations of writers, Dr. Johnson among them—are big, smoking, financial holes. Writers who’ve spent decades honing their craft, deepening their knowledge of their beats, and burnishing their brands are out on the pavement, cobbling together minimum-wage incomes from the slaughterhouse sweepings of freelance journalism, adjunct teaching, maybe even advertising copywriting (if selling their deathless prose, by the yard, to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce doesn’t violate some Adbusters-approved code of conduct). More and more Web publications pay nothing but street cred, schwag, and name recognition on a nano scale—crack rock for dilettantes, but a death knell for anyone who dreams of earning a living in the scribbling trade. Of those sites that do pay, too many are word farms where bloggers chase bonuses pegged to pageviews, using search engine-optimized headlines to goose their clickthrough rates. “Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding—or shaming—writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms,” wrote New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters in a recent Times article that portrayed sites like Politico.com as sweatshops (“In a World of Online News, Burnout Starts Younger,” July 18). A reported story on PBS’s “Mediashift” (“Writers Explain What It’s Like Toiling on the Content Farm,” July 21) quoted a disaffected former “content creator” for Demand Media’s eHow.com, a how-to site whose freelance minions base their instructional articles on ideas generated by algorithm:
“I was completely aware that I was writing crap,” she said. ‘I was like, ‘I hope to God people don’t read my advice on how to make gin at home because they’ll probably poison themselves.’”
‘Never trust anything you read on eHow.com,’ she said…”
In the wake of Forbes’s acquisition of True/Slant and T/S founder Lewis Dvorkin’s ascent to the status of chief product officer at Forbes, The New York Observer ran a profile of Dvorkin (“‘Darth D’Vorkin’Arrives at Forbes,” July 13) that I, as one who won’t be toiling in the fields of Forbes, Noted With Interest, as writers to The New York Times letters column like to say.
According to Observer reporter Zeke Turner, Dvorkin
“thinks of stories as product. And the most efficient way to churn out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers. Moving forward, when I look at an operation like Forbes, I look at a mixture of a full-time staff base and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contributors. [...] That’s what we did at True/Slant…We let the reporter self-publish—boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine? [...] The editing process online is vastly different than in print…There is a fit and finish that you must have in print. Online, it’s not about fit and finish; it’s about the flow of information, the updates of information. It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship. In print, quality does equal craftsmanship.”
Let me say that I wish Dvorkin, my editors, my former colleagues, and True/Slant every success. The thought that I might be plucked from the ranks of T/S to join the few, the proud at Forbes never entered my laughably unForbes-ian mind. I was a desultory True/Slant-er, posting infrequently and at inordinate length, on topics that were sometimes topical but often not. I’m not immune to newsiness, but refuse to be stampeded trendward, along with the rest of the goggle-eyed media herd.
In his essay “The Long Goodbye: Trying To See Past The Increasingly Harrowing Plight Of Longform Nonfiction In General Interest Magazines,” Lawrence Weschler writes,
“The magazine universe today is increasingly niche-slotted, peg-driven and attention-squeezed. There may be more magazines than ever before, but commercial forces appear to be enforcing an evermore frantic fragmentation of the readerly market. Surfers and advertisers interested in reaching surfers may have a half-dozen venues to choose from, but one is much less likely to find a beautiful extended surfing rhapsody exposed to a general audience owing simply to some writer’s glorious quirky passion. [...] Readers, after all, bore so easily nowadays—or, at any rate, editors seem convinced that they do; or maybe it’s just that the editors, squeezed by increasingly convulsive demands on their own time, can no longer themselves sustain such leisurely spans of attention.”
The unspoken goal, in too much American journalism, is not to tell people what they don’t know, or never even imagined they might want to know, but to tell people what they already know, since it logically follows that anything they don’t know is too weird to survive in what we Americans, in our inimitably irony-free way, like to call the Marketplace of Ideas. It’s this failure of editorial nerve, driven by a cringing fear of scaring off advertisers, that has rendered largely extinct the sort of narrative nonfiction Weschler elsewhere describes as “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject, and through the sheer narrative energy of the writing, you’d find yourself becoming caught and then held, completely immersed, lost to the world for hours at a time…”
And one must tell people things they already know in language they already use—PowerPoint prose that is easily bullet-ized in the reader’s mind. Like William F. Buckley, I never scrupled at sending my reader to the OED if a sesquipedalian word was the best word for the job. Nor did I feel any obligation to smilingly submit to the intellectual straitjacket that constrains too much American journalism, namely, the presumption that a writer’s allusions and references should be bounded by the cultural literacy of Kim Kardashian.
Which isn’t to say my posts were all unalloyed brilliance. Some flew high; some were big, fat piles of fail. You’ll be the judge of which was which. My point is simply that, like Weschler in his essays, I presumed in my True/Slant posts a reader who craves wonder and laughter; who isn’t reflexively hostile to having her mind stretched or the revealed truths of his ideological niche or demographic comfort zone challenged. To those of you who wandered the forking paths of longform posts that were equal parts nonfiction hedge maze and poetic topiary, I’m immensely grateful for your generosity with your time, and with your comment-thread wisdom.
That said, I blithely disregarded the received wisdom about what works on the Web, and what markets smile on, and thus had no illusions about my fitness for the new order when regime change came to True/Slant.
Consequently, the only dog I have in this fight is a philosophical one. I agree with Dvorkin that any writer who puts pen to paper for money is self-evidently turning out “product.” But that isn’t all he’s doing. Deep down inside, most writers, even the most cynical grub-street hacks, flatter themselves that they’re Speaking Truth to Power or, hell, spinning a good yarn, at least.
The mark of a real writer is that she cares deeply about literary joinery, about keeping the lines of her prose plumb. That’s what makes writers writers: to them, prose isn’t just some Platonic vessel for serving up content; they care about words. Any chief product officer who says “quality online does not equal craftsmanship” is channeling the utilitarian gospel of the managerial class, an instrumentalist vision of journalism that presumes writing, online, is just a turkey baster for injecting content into the user’s brain. Undeniably, that sort of writing is everywhere, online, from here to eHow.com, an algal bloom of brain-cloggingly awful prose. It results in reader die-off, in the long run, because bloggers posting in a workplace culture that dismisses the importance of craft will tend, unsurprisingly, to turn out stories that aren’t well-crafted, and what isn’t well-crafted isn’t well-read.
At True/Slant, Dvorkin told Observer reporter Zeke Turner, “We let the reporter self-publish—boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine?” From a managerial perspective, lowering overhead by doing away with the Middlemen Formerly Known as Editors makes spreadsheet sense. But who minds the store? Self-editing and self-publishing are fine if you’re Matt Taibbi or Susannah Breslin, reporters who roll over in their sleep and snore out perfectly parsed sentences and triple-sourced statements of fact. But what about the guy in the next cubicle, quietly sculpting the equivalent, in obsessive prose, of Richard Dreyfuss’s scale model of Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming? Who’s watching him?
It gets worse. The Observer reporter quotes Dvorkin’s observation that “the most efficient way to churn [stories] out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers.” Translated from the original managerial-ese, this means: very little editorial oversight, if any. In the Observer article, there’s talk of “screening” the “hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands” (Dvorkin’s words) of what the reporter says will be Forbes/Slant’s “amateur ‘topic-specific credible’ journalists,” but that phrasing suggests that the vetting will be limited to the hiring process, not daily editing, a concession to the Darwinian realities of the recession-hammered news business that a Forbes staffer quoted in the Observer article seems to concede when s/he acknowledges that some Forbes/Slant bloggers “will be stock-touts, and we know that, and Lewis knows that, but he says that’s a cost of the model.”
Ain’t no facepalm big enough to convey the brain-hurting wrongheadedness of this strategy. Any of my journalism students at NYU would have spotted this, from a mile off, as an ethical fail. The FDA may have made its troubled peace, in regulatory terms, with the number of fly eggs and rodent excreta it permits in the mass-produced Frankenfood brought to you by agribusiness, but journalism doesn’t work that way: turning a blind eye on one “stock-tout,” if you’re a business site, tells consumers whose market decisions depend on the impartial truth of your data that some of it may be rotten with bias. And if any of it is, the consumer has to operate as if all of it is, which sort of gives your credibility the Mussolini headkick.
I could be wrong. Dvorkin may cherry-pick a staff of lungingly aggressive reporters whose prose swings harder than Thompson or Talese, and Bateman and Roston may keep a close watch on their journalistic ethics and factual accuracy. I’ll happily eat crow on that count, because journalism could use a few more success stories right about now, and any market model that lifts off the launchpad is a victory for all of us, even Your Author.
But one thing is certain, and sad: the grim insistence that writers of every genre prioritize, above all else, the demands of chief product officers with one eye on the balance sheet and the other on the stock ticker guarantees that beguiling “pieces you might curl into, of an evening, having no prior notion that you could even become remotely interested in their subject” will be fewer and further between, and wonder in shorter supply. Just when we need it most, the act of thinking aloud in public will fall victim to cost-benefit analyses, condemned for the sublime uselessness that makes it so useful.