Joseph Mitchell On The Web

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Matt and my old colleague Josh Tyrangiel make the point that long-form isn't really working on the web:

This reminds me that something I've come to understand in my years in the business is that probably the greatest privilege that writers for traditional magazines have is that nobody has any idea who's reading them. Instead, they get to sort of operate with this mental image of things working very differently from the guy reading blogs instead of filling out his TPS Report. Maybe you're relaxing in your easy chair, smoking a pipe, lovingly devouring each and every sentence of that 6,000 feature. Nice to think of your writing getting that kind of loving care from readers.

But if you think about how magazines actually work, it's really not like that. I subscribe to The New Yorker because it's a great magazine. But do I read every article that's in every issue of the New Yorker? Of course not. In fact, some weeks I barely read any articles at all. And as best I can tell, the same is true of most New Yorker subscribers. And certainly almost nobody reads more than a trivial percentage of the content The New York Times puts out on any given day. But in print, nobody can really tell what's being read or when or why or by whom. You just know that the gestalt is selling. Which gives editors and writers a lot of flexibility in terms of what they put into the gestalt. Which is fun because in my experience people get into writing and editing periodicals primarily because they enjoy doing it rather than because they're genuinely interested in being responsible fiduciary agents of profit-maximizing shareholders.

On the web, there's much less wiggle room and much less room for self-deception. You need readers who really and truly do click over to your site each and every day, not "subscribers" who may or may not be reading any given issue. And you know the--unflattering--truth about when they read you. Generally at work, and with intermittent attention.

I'd agree that knowing exactly who is reading you is a revealing experience. I'd also agree that, in the sense of generating constant repeating eye-balls, long-form isn't working on the web. But as a guy who's worked on the web, and in print, I'd back this analysis up and add something else--long-form isn't working particularly well in magazines.

Now, perhaps my view is skewed by my own history as a guy who A.) Spent much of my life around people who don't read the New Yorker B.) Started in on magazine journalism in 96, with the internet was becoming a factor in journalism C.) Has never worked at a magazine/alt weekly that wasn't having money troubles, and didn't make it known to the writers.

I know for some magazine journalists there was a Mad Men-ish hey-day, when their work was glamorous and a marker of status. I think the image of "magazine writer" centers around some dude dressed like Gay Talese, enjoying three-martini lunches. It's never been like that for me, or any of my colleagues, and I wonder if it ever really was. Moreover most of us are very clear on why it's not like that--very few people care about your work. You're not making movies. You're not on TV. 

It's obviously true that traffic metrics are more precise than subscriptions. But that really hasn't altered what and how I write. I'm going to write about the Civil War, the Dallas Cowboys, Negroes, and the occasional visit to the Met. And sometimes, I'm going to write long. It's quite possible that this combo could cause traffic to plummet, and I'll get fired. I wouldn't like that, but there isn't much I can do about it. It's not like Iike I'm capable of writing with any degree of passion about much else. That acquaintance with rejection, and with the distinct possibility of failure, didn't come from my traffic numbers--it came from my time in magazines.

I think only a select group of magazine writers believe that there's a reader somewhere lovingly poring over their prose. More common, from my experience, is the sense that no one really gives a fuck. Magazine writers often have family members who wish that they would grow up and get a real job. They spend a great deal of time around people who aren't really clear on exactly what they do or how we make a living doing it. They spend their afternoons stalking editors, and fretting over unreturned e-mailed and unanswered pitches. They aren't simply aware that the audience doesn't care, they're aware that most editors don't much care.



If they're lucky and make a sale, at which point they're remind exactly how few people care, because payment gets discussed. Then, should they be lucky to get a pitch accepted, the possibility of the piece getting killed always hangs over them. Pieces get killed for all sorts of reasons--your editor (and advocate) changes gigs, the top editor changes his mind, the package is suddenly deemed a bad idea etc.

It's instructive that Matt cites The New Yorker. It's worth noting that New Yorker has only recently become profitable. I deeply suspect that the economics of how most writers are paid, even at the top-shelf magazines (like this one) would surprise a lot of people. The ATL is more generous and fair-minded than most, but I think that has to do with it being a passion project which our owner really hopes will be soon be profitable, not a sure-fire investment. You don't get into magazines to make a fortune. And you certainly don't write for magazines to make one either. I got my start in magazines at  The Washington Monthly. I was not a perfect writer--I was sloppier than I am now--but I often puts in months of work to finish a story. The going rate then was roughly 10 cents a word. I think the biggest check I ever got from them was $400.

And I loved them for it--it was cash bought diapers and paid utilities. Moreover, I got decent clips which would, hopefully, earn me another opportunity to write. But through it all, I was very aware that my piddling wage was a direct reflection on the estimated number of people who'd read the magazine, and would read my writing. It's impossible to avoid the connection between your economic station and the number of people consuming your product. You can find exceptions to this rule, but in general long-form writers live somewhere between actors and cab-drivers.

It's true that long-form doesn't work well on the net--but, as I said, I think it only works a little bit better in print. The road is littered with magazines that can testify to this. Indeed, it's littered with magazine writers. I was at TIME for a year and half before getting laid-off. It was the third writing gig I'd lost in five years. Each time the publication was under serious financial pressure. I expect this one to go a lot better.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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