Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The impact of the Internet on quality in the publishing business.

A common refrain today is something along the lines of this:

"There's so much crap on the Internet right now. Newspapers, magazines, even websites -- they used to publish good stuff. Now, it's all bloggy snarky untrusted crap."

I don't disagree with the preponderance of low-quality content online. But we don't give the Internet credit for heightening competition between writers, editors, publications (and their parent companies) like never before.

It has never before been this difficult to be in publishing. No, I'm not talking about low salaries or staff cuts or demands for hamster-wheel content and clicks, though all those things exist. I'm talking about the fact that your competitors are a click away, and you can see them executing at every point.

It used to be that you had to wait until publications hit the newsstand before you knew where you or your publication stood. (Unless you had the inside line on a rival. Some do.) Now, this occasion occurs every minute, and it cuts across demographics -- you're no longer just competing within your publication type (consumer national, consumer regional, trade?) or industry (sci-tech? business? women's interest? sports? celebrities?). You're competing with everyone.

That architecture spread you ran? Dwell's was better. The fashion shoot? Harper's Bazaar has your number. The deep dive into a political figure's past? New York did it better -- or was it the New Yorker, New Republic or New York Times Magazine? Nevermind Politico, the Huffington Post or Ben Smith at BuzzFeed.

It can be absolutely paralyzing.

One result of this has been a lot of mission creep. Another has been the low-quality, reader acquisition editorial that I mentioned above -- when the walls break down between customers, they also break down between publications. But yet another? The formidable task of competing with the best, at all times.

It makes the old days of the Washington Post vs. the New York Times look antiquated. One on one? Now it comes from all sides, including from the very bottom.

Sure, you don't have to look. You don't have to click through. You don't have to read that tweet about that great story another publication did -- the one you thought to assign two weeks ago but never got around to it. But it's easy to do.

This can be scary for some. At times, paralyzing, as I mentioned. But it is also encouraging, because there has never been more of an impetus to compete. It is a burden, but also an immense driver. And it's driving your publication to heights never before attempted.

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