It seems safe to say that few people associated with Harvard are at this moment beaming with pride over the university's association with Niall Ferguson. (Certainly not James Fallows.) After yesterday's crowd-sourced scrutiny of Ferguson's Newsweek cover story on President Obama, the most generous thing you can say about him is that, though his analysis is sloppy at best, and falls short of scholarly standards at any accredited university, if you think of him not as a scholar but as a hack journalist or partisan polemicist, he's not all that far below the vocational average.
Which leads to this question: Though Ferguson is clearly bad for the Harvard brand, what about the Newsweek/Daily Beast brand? Is NewsBeast editor Tina Brown glad she published the piece?
I don't know, but I think she's more likely to be happy with it than she would have been 20 years ago. I'm not especially nostalgic about pre-online journalism; as I've noted before, the internet has in some ways improved journalistic standards--and in fact, yesterday's crowd-sourcing of the Ferguson piece was an example of net-powered analytical transparency. But there's one distinctive property of online journalism that may increase the (already ample) temptation of editors to publish shoddy but sexy stuff.
In the days of physical magazines, though you got quantitative feedback at the level of the periodical (subscription numbers, newsstand sales), you got no such feedback at the level of the individual article. Feedback on individual pieces came in a kind of anecdotal way that was very much elite-mediated. You would hear compliments (or the opposite) from colleagues, or you'd hear compliments that colleagues heard at cocktail parties, or your piece would get mentioned in someone's column. And so on: the verdict on your work was rendered by people in the chattering class and the people they hung out with. If you impressed them, your editor would be proud of you.
I remember an early discussion of how things were about to change. In the mid-1990s, shortly after founding Slate, Mike Kinsley realized that in principle writers could find out how many people had read (or at least started reading) pieces they'd written. He told me he suspected that giving writers access to those numbers would have an unhealthy effect on their writing.
I don't know what his opinion on that is now, but I do know this: Even if Tina Brown felt deeply chagrined by yesterday's blowback, at the end of the day there's a way to drown her sorrows: She can gaze at the number of pageviews for the Ferguson piece. Judging by publically available metrics--tweets, etc.--that number is very large.
I don't want to exaggerate the difference this makes. Writers have always been able to get attention by being sloppily polemical, and there's always been a temptation to do so. And editors--certainly including Tina Brown--have always had a sense for when a particular story drove newsstand sales or got the public at large buzzing.
Still, it did used to be the case that editors and writers got no purely quantitative feedback about pieces, and the qualitative feedback they got tended to be rendered by elites. To try to translate it into online terms, it's as if you said to Tina Brown: You can't have access to traffic stats for individual articles (and, anyway, in this thought experiment, there would be no increase in ad revenue resulting from the quantitative performance of individual articles); but you can tune in to a Twitter feed consisting of the best and the brightest, on the left and the right, discussing the piece. (And, unless I missed something, there was no great defense of Ferguson from the right yesterday.)
That would give her some sense for the amount of elite buzz, and maybe some very rough basis for guessing about traffic, but it would force her to reckon with the fact that the buzz was overwhelmingly negative, and that smart people think this was a stupid piece.
I'm not saying this would be hugely different from the world we're in, but it would be different, and maybe, in some cases, consequentially so.
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