Why Is Traditional Media In Trouble? Don't Ask Harper's Publisher John MacArthur

Last Updated Dec 27, 2010 3:29 AM EST

Recently, John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, wrote of his skepticism about the Internet and wondered how it could be worth anyone's time. Long having doubted the "'revolutionary' potential of the Internet," he calls himself "radicalized" and offended by what the Internet does to society.

MacArthur's dismissal of an entire form of media and people associated with it is more than shortsightedness. His attitude betrays a depth of smugness and insularity that is a major reason why traditional media is endangered. The threat is not just an unfortunate combination of technology and changing societal attitudes. No, media barons have done more damage to themselves than anyone or anything else could have.

MacArthur's first rhetorical calamity is the attempt to blame the Internet for changing economic conditions that drive labor rates downward to the detriment of workers and the benefit of business owners. Granted, improved communications have helped make this trend easier, but the first waves of modern job displacement started in the 1980s, long before the Internet gained its ubiquitous commercial presence. The real cause, depending on what side of the fence you sit, is either a corporate drive for efficiency to deliver value to shareholders, or human greed and disinterest in the welfare of others.

Even when it comes to his own industry, MacArthur shows himself ignorant of reality and too ready to blame others:

Similarly, writers and editors, as Harper's Magazine's Thomas Frank points out, are being driven into penury by Internet wages -- in most cases, no wages. But, as Lawrence Summers once said to me about Mexicans, Americans are free to "choose" to work in "content mills," the editorial equivalent of Mexican maquilladoras, where they can earn $15 for writing 300 words. The result of this "free choice" is what Leon Wieseltier calls the "proletarianization of the writer," although what he describes as their "indecent poverty" has yet to turn them radical.
I agree that a $15 payment to write a 300-word article is absurd. I also know many writers who are thriving and make and at least an order of magnitude more for their online work. However, even if you focus on this new type of myopic service journalism that tells someone how to do something relatively trivial, the cause of minuscule payment is not a TCP/IP packet. Pathetic pay exists because of exploitative business practices, and content mills are hardly the only example in publishing.

Many traditional publications have cut staff, demanded longer hours, and repressed pay. In his concern for independent writers, he might consider that the magazine industry has largely kept payment for work stagnant since the 1970s. Book publishers steadily cut compensation to authors and editors. All cry poor and point to the need for economies to survive. Publishers are just as capable of depressing wages -- and then taking geological time to pay -- for their own purposes as any other business. MacArthur should realize that there are times self-righteousness is an embarrassment.

(A note to MacArthur: Next time you plan such a rant, when someone like Jay Rosen critiques an author in your magazine for factually erroneous characterization of Rosen's interview questions, pay him for a response. Don't suggest that he send a letter to the editor that you can use gratis. It makes you cheaper than the content mills you decry.)

Even more astounding is MacArthur's total rejection of any possible worth of this remarkable technology:

I am even more offended, however, by the online sensibility and its anti-democratic, anti-emotional affect. Partisans of the Internet like to say that the Web is a bottom-up phenomenon that wondrously bypasses the traditional gatekeepers in publishing and politics who allegedly snuff out true debate. But most of what I see is unedited, incoherent babble indicative of a herd mentality, not a true desire for self-government or fairness. Can it be seriously argued that popular government in America -- with our two-party oligarchy, 90 percent-plus re-election rates, and money-laundered politics -- has progressed in the age of the Internet? Has WikiLeaks's disclosure of Afghanistan documents moved us any closer to withdrawal from that country? Would America be any less democratic without e-mail?
So traditional publishing is ... what? Completely democratic? A meritocracy unaffected by old boys' networks? Please don't make me scoff. Was WikiLeaks supposed to move the country closer to withdrawal from Afghanistan in the month since it began to release the leaked cables than Harper's apparently has since the conflict's inception?

In that 30-day blink of the collective eye, the cables have only highlighted dozens of significant stories that show questionable ethics and actions by multiple governments, corporations, and individuals. Perhaps MacArthur would have been favorable in his judgment had his publication been included in the advanced access and not left an outsider. Ah, the pain of how most people experience your traditional democratic free flow of information and influence.

Would America be less democratic -- capable of less communication and action -- without email, as MacArthur asks? Absolutely. Anyone in politics knows the power of rapid and broad communications at a cost that makes it available to ordinary people. The incoherent babble includes people long lost to each other finding ways to reclaim friendship and kinship. It includes traditional fine literature like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, available to anyone with access to a public computer, as well as modern writing. Go to YouTube and hear David Oistrakh's most intelligent and sensitive interpretation of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto even though you likely will not find it traditional media. The finest universities have make complete course material and video lectures available to anyone who wishes to learn. Blogs and special interest sites introduce many to breathtaking art, thought-provoking ideas, cultures, and other influences more diverse for all who do not live comfortably in Manhattan than at any other time in history.

Toward the end of his essay, MacArthur writes:

The writer Frederic Morton notes that "you can't download a hug," but Mark Zuckerberg apparently thinks that you can. To see how empty is the "social" promise of Facebook, read Zuckerberg's recent interview in the Financial Times, which is all about making more money: "Every industry is going to be rethought in a social way -- you can remake whole industries."
Is money part of what motivates entrepreneurs? I would hope so. However, MacArthur does not even begin to grasp how far beyond a bank account sit the notions of those creating the future of the Internet. That, in a nutshell, is the problem of publishing. To make effective use of a new medium -- to help bring light to a darkened world, if that is your real motivation beyond keeping a comfy job -- you must understand it. But that is impossible when doing so would be beneath you.


Image: Flickr user mpclemens, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.