Online Media Is a Fixie: Simple, Low-Maintenance, Fun, and Dangerous

... And editors are the gears.
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A fixed-gear bike, ready for a ride (Shutterstock/dutourdumonde)

I was running on a hot day in Denver, bikes whizzing past me ("On your left!") thinking about online media when I hit on an analogy that might explain why I love blogging so much and why I find the newspaper apparatus so interesting. 

Digital media is like a fixie*. You've probably seen fixed-gear bikes if you live in a big urban area or have visited Portland. Unlike the 10-speeds we grew up with or a 24-speed mountain bike, fixies are set to a single gearing. That is to say, the relationship between a pedal rotation and a wheel rotation is fixed. (Perhaps at a ratio of 2.5 or 3: one full pedal rotation moves the bike forward 2.5 or 3 times the circumference of the wheel.)

Now, gears are magic kinetic proof of the wonderful laws of physics. And they come in handy: by changing that ratio, you can make peddling easier going up a hill or switch to a high gear ratio (say 4:1), which allows you to go fast as each pedal rotation drives the back farther. In general, the gears help you match the work your legs are doing to the terrain. 

That gearing does have some costs. Namely, the gears are expensive, heavy, and require more maintenance. And of course, the whole riding process is more complicated because you have to switch gears. 

Fixies, by contrast, are (generally speaking) lighter and have fewer parts than bikes with more gears. Less maintenance is required. Some even have no brakes (although most fixies you see in a city do). Plus, there's still a whiff of countercultural street cred thanks to these bikes' association with bike messengers and overall badassness. 

To spell out the analogy: pedaling is the reportorial/analytical work of journalism and the distance the bike moves is the amount of output (posts, etc) that comes from that effort.

At most online media outfits I know, people just pedal as fast as they can with posts spinning out of that work in very simple ways. What you report and analyze, you write. It's hard work, but conceptually easy. The whole process of publishing is stripped down to the essentials. The apparatus doesn't have a lot of costs. 

OK, now for my key point: editors are gears. 

Without being too mechanistic about the analogy: editors can change the way effort is distributed. They can gear down and have reporters pedal like crazy without posting a ton of stuff. They can throw a bunch of effort at a story so that it can move really quickly. This was really clear during the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. A machine like the Boston Globe can do things that are amazing, in large part because they have a bunch of editors who can direct things. That task is a lot harder in very flat online media organizations that don't have much editorial gearing. 

This is not an argument about whether online media is better or worse than previous ways of publishing news and analysis. But it is different, and I wonder if online media companies won't start adding gears, taking on complexity in order to give themselves more flexibility in different reporting situations. 

* Just to point out the obvious joke that some will be tempted to make: "Oh, it's like a fixie? You mean a BS hipster trend that's going to disappear in a couple of years." Yes, I get that as a joke. No, that's not what I mean. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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