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One of my favourite news sources is the Atlantic Magazine. Unlike most American news sources, it is completely able to look past its own biases – not just political biases (never choosing a left or right-wing approach in a particular article, but blending them into the same article), but other biases too. I would probably rate it above the Economist in terms of independence (since the Economist usually hews to a stolidly classical liberal point of view).

It’s not always the most well-written magazine. It obviously gets the basics right (it’s informative, its understandable and the grammar and spelling is all correct), but it lacks the smooth flow of the Economist, or the artiness of the New Yorker. I think, as a brand, it lacks a singular voice with which all its articles speak. Which appears to be both its weakness and its greatest strength, for there is a surprising diversity in its articles. It’s a real shame the thing’s not available in Australia, although I get their weekly emails.

This article is a fantastic example. It is the most cogent article I’ve seen on the decline of news media. It works as a lucid a business analysis, pinpointing the key factors behind the decline of the business with a clarity I have not seen before. But it goes further, explaining the future of the industry in business terms. It describes future (possible) revenue drivers and business models. It describes the entire future industry succinctly and understandably. Just as importantly, I think it describes it in a way that is understandable to lay people. I’m sure if I were a journalism student, or a IT student I would be able to see nuances from those fields in this same article.

As a piece of journalism, it works just as well. Fallows describes different points of view, and places each fact in context. He comprehensively describes trends in new and old media objectively. Atlantic articles, as I have said, tend to be a bit hit and miss with the quality of their writing. This particular article is very well written (with a brief exception where he discloses his friendship with Eric Schmidt, which breaks the flow of the article mid-way and is a bit jarring).

I think, however, both these angles miss the real gem of this article. The brilliant thing is that Fallows can capture a unique angle on an old topic, take these facts and turn them into a coherent viewpoint. The death of old media has been bandied about for a decade now, with the same arguments carried back and forth. “Old media’s dead”, one side will argue. “How can new media make money?”, the other side will rebutt, “Twitter is tremendously successful but is completely unable to capture that revenue”. Fallows takes the best of these arguments and makes his point of view seem sort of obvious. And yet it can’t be, because I’ve rarely heard it before in this complete form. He raises facts I’ve not heard before – the idea that most expenses in the newspaper industry are paper-related, rather than content related.

It’s a very well-written article. A few months back, I had been thinking up my own business model to start up a poltical newspaper or magazine. I hadn’t done any research, but it’s amazing how much this article adds to my understanding.

I think there is room for new Old Media to appear. As one of the Google employee notes, there is a lot of repetition when it comes to approaching news stories. Everyone has the same angle. I want to start a magazine with the independence of the Atlantic, and the comprehensive and piercing analysis of the Economist. Hiring reporters to do the footwork is difficult stuff – sending them to Baghdad etc. But hiring intelligent opinion writers who can do a big cover story each week is a lot cheaper. For example, how much would it cost to hire a journalist to spend a week reading the Henry Tax Review, interviewing tax accountants, and doing a full report? As far as I’m aware, noone has attempted to give interested lay people a good summary of the Henry Review. What about the super-profits tax? Noone has adequately explained how it actually works. Almost nowhere will you see explained the fact that it was intended to replace the existing royalty system with a new regieme. There are just so many angles to be pursued, that aren’t being pursued in Australia.

Just as importantly, if you don’t read every single news article, you start to fall behind. I’ve stopped reading the world news from the Middle East because I just don’t know what’s happening. An article might describe a bombing in Pakistan. That’s great, but I’ve no idea whether this bombing is taking place after a long peace, or not. I don’t understand the context because I stopped caring. A magazine that can provide an excellent summary as well as an excellent analysis of that summary will be brilliant. As it happens, Google has been thinking along these same lines (see Living Stories on page 5 of the Atlantic article)

I think that if you can prioritise your competitive advantage in information synthesisation and writing, a new magazine company can really excel. The trick is to distribute your product without incurring those cost inefficiencies Fallows describes, and also to market the value of your product, you can really gain a strong foothold.

There are niched magazines. The Monthly and the Quarterly stand in for the New Yorker but tend to be aimed squarely at the left intelligentsia, and in any case are published quite infrequently. The (former) Bulletin was aimed at the masses. The AFR combines its daily reporting with occasional op-ed. But noone has attempted a weekly magazine which balances the two. I want to create an Economist magazine for Australia.

I think it can be done.

Edit: By the way, here’s an equally good New Yorker article about the future of books themselves.

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2 Comments

  1. Fully agreed.

    I think you mean this article?

  2. Sigh… yes, indeed.


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