The Economics of Magazines and Diversity

Last week, I went on a bit of bender asking (begging, pleading, rather) for people to subscribe to the magazine -- either in print or via iPad. In making my argument, I pointed to the support The Atlantic has traditionally given its writers to go long in an era when everyone (ourselves included) is somewhat concerned about the future of the medium.

Howard Ramsby, who heads the Black Studies program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, saw that and began wondering why so few black writers get that sort of support, and how that can change:

Ta-Nehisi Coates published a short blog entry and expressed gratitude to the magazine for supporting his work. "I can think of maybe one other magazine," he noted, "that would have published something like this, at this rather sprawling length." I'm curious about the unnamed magazine other than The Atlantic that he has in mind, and more importantly, I'm interested in understanding the high levels of support that Coates and one other writer, Colson Whitehead, have received in order to produce "sprawling" pieces.

This is a question I spend a lot of time turning over. To be clear, the other magazine was The New Yorker, which, I think, has two black writers on staff. I can't think of a black woman who's regularly publishing long-form magazine articles. I can think of a few other African Americans who freelance regularly (Howard French over here, or Gwen Ifill's Obama profiles at Essence, for instance) but the depressing fact is that there just aren't that many of us.

As always, I think it's important to get some context. Magazines, particularly those of a certain stripe, have exclusion in their DNA. Vanity Fair,  Esquire, GQ are all, on some level, aspirational.  They are all trying to project some high life that you really should be living. The Atlantic is not that much different, except we're more "Here's what the cool kids are thinking" or some such. Consumer magazines are (generally) in the business of taste-making. Some restrict themselves to fashion, others to food, and still others to ideas.

For decades, the people doing that taste-making have been, by and large, white. And actually "white," as a descriptor, doesn't even cut it. If I had to construct the typical magazine editor he would be a white male, who'd gone to an Ivy, and lived in either Boston, New York, or D.C. So the profile for the magazine industry -- especially when you compare it to the broader field of journalism -- is really thin, and unrepresentative of America, though arguably very representative of American aspiration.

Now take that thin profile and put it under severe economic duress. It was always a privileged life to be able to support oneself writing for magazines. Now it is an almost unheard of life. (Observe the medium through which I am speaking to you right now.) Even in the halcyon days of Gay Talese, I would bet that many of the writers supplemented their income by doing something else. So while it is true that there are few black magazine writers, or Latino magazine writers, or women magazine writers, or Asian-American magazine writers, it's also true that, at this point in history, there are very few people, in general, doing this sort of work.

So to put Howard's question in perspective I'd say two things:

1.) Magazines have long had a diversity problem, and that diversity problem is inscribed in their DNA. You can add on to this the fact that the traditional way of breaking into magazines involve ways utterly inaccessible to most black people. The unpaid internship was long seen as a right of passage. Very few Americans can afford such a luxury, and fewer still African-Americans can afford it.

Even those opportunities which do pay, pay so little that they make for a hard sell to demographic that is often just within the first generation of college graduates. The Washington Monthly, for instance, has long produced an outsize number of long-form journalists. But the wages are the sort that would never appeal to someone worried about the grandmother's medical bills, worried about their younger brother making it through high school, worried that their mother might get laid off.

2.) Magazines, whatever their exclusivity, are often under a great deal of economic pressure. Longform journalists live perpetually in fear that all the venues for their stuff will eventually shutter. To go back to the  the Monthly for a second, the pay is not kept low out of willful desire to  remain as white as possible, but because the magazine basically runs on passion and commitment, and is perpetually in a fight to stay afloat.

In terms of support, all I can tell you is the following. I started last year with a headline and some hazy notions and some need, not totally explicable at the time, to talk to Shirley Sherrod. When I finally came in with a draft my editor actually told me "You should say more." This never happens to any writer--black or not. (The result is the section on the history of American citizenship as well as more on Obama's specific appeal to blacks.) When I had a draft, I had two of the best editors in the business, several fact-checkers and copy-editors. Meanwhile my online editor was very generous in giving me the time to get this piece going.

I guess at some point this kind of support was normal. It isn't anymore, and today I think it qualifies as a "high level" of support. It's certainly more than any I've experienced in my career.  My name is on that piece. But there is an army of resources behind it. That is why I am perpetually down on my knees begging people to subscribe. If we can't keep that army in place, the quality of the journalism here will diminish.

Under such circumstances, it becomes really hard to have a conversation about diversity because we are all facing a world in which there is nothing to diversify. My hope is that the newer publications (like Grantland) will find the field a little easier and will not have the bone-deep issues that magazines often have which inhibit diversity. I think there's some hope for the future. But there needs to be a readership in place to support it.