Industry Paradox

No, I’m not referring to that time that James T. Kirk asked an industrial computer an impossible question. I’m talking about how things everyone is interested in, aren’t generating sustainable income.

This morning, Twitter started to circulate stories about the staff of Macworld being laid off. I read Jason Snell’s heartfelt post about his reasons for leaving his position, as well as the optimism he has for making things again.

Jason Snell was my metaphorical white whale. I think he’s the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees — that’s a lot of conflicting animals, but bear with me — He’s a real standup gent. He’s also been professionally successful in a geeky business doing geeky stuff. He’s hobnobbed with all sorts of Apple people that I would just gawk at, mouth agape. He’s a real pro, through and through. What I admire most of all, is his side project, The Incomparable. What started as a nerdy, panel discussion of rotating topics has turned in to a bit of a nerdy empire. He obviously draws great satisfaction from creating things for audiences.

I used to love buying Macworld issues. I was not a subscriber, but I would spend a few bucks, when I could, to read Mac magazines (I also read MacUser before it was acquired by Macworld, but honestly I couldn’t mentally distinguish specific articles from one or the other right now). This was, of course, during the dark times at Apple when they weren’t doing too well. You would not know that from the issues. They contained delightful spreads about upcoming projects. Glossy photos of Apple’s hardware (which they made look interesting, even though they were mostly reused cases) with artfully placed copy. Everything about it was a real, honest-to-goodness experience. How can you make an unimaginative product name like, “603e” sound interesting? They did! There were huge comparisons of all the Mac clones (they were mostly identical in performance). I vividly recall an image of a prototype Apple notebook that had a detachable screen (never shipped) as well as a special Japanese Powerbook that never shipped to the US. I lusted after these amazing things. That magazine is where I first saw Rhapsody, and read about Yellow Box and Blue Box. There was so much there, and it was all dressed to the nines, despite Apple teetering on the edge of oblivion.

However, Macworld, like almost every publication that existed, botched the internet. (Jason Snell talks a little about urging MacUser, and Macworld, to take the internet seriously in an interview with Anže Tomić.) I moved away from Macworld. Their monthly issues were still beautiful, but the information was often not current. When things around Apple changed quickly, the news lagged behind — something you wouldn’t notice in the 90s.

I started to go back to Macworld after I started listening to Jason’s creative outlet, The Incomparable, since many panelists were writers, editors, and contributors to the stories on the site. They revised their site to be less-bad, and I often refer to it for content that you don’t find on those “BREAKING! EXCLUSIVE!“, Betteridge’s-Law-breaking, feeding troughs of “Sources close to”, triple-paraphrased tech sites. Serenity Caldwell wrote great stuff about ebooks, because she was in charge of making them for Macworld. Lex Friedman (who left to go in to podcasting ad sales) has in-depth articles on things you don’t think you need to know, like managing your Gmail through Fluid app instances. It’s all really great, really geeky stuff, and not eHow stuff. Philip Michaels even made fun of this crazy, media world in his Macworld Pundit Showdown series. It’s not all news, it’s life, it’s meta.

It is strange that while Apple has risen to a level that surpassed where it was in the 80s, and interest in Apple has increased to match that, the old media outlets that covered Apple in the 90s declined. Layoffs, and turning around and publishing the web items as next month’s issue, have done very little to balance the books for Macworld. It’s a very cruel irony that the fortunes of these people, and this company, are moving in a direction opposite to the products they cover.

As someone that has gone through layoffs, I know that hearing things like, “good luck”, and “land on your feet” can sound kind of hollow, but it’s often the only thing we can think to say to one another^1. It’s certainly what I said to the Macworld people I follow on Twitter. I wasn’t sure what else to say, even though I’ve been on the receiving end. (While there are more VFX shots in films than there ever have been, almost all the work in California left with our water.)

From Jason’s interview with Anže around 47 minutes in:

There was a time when I thought that the media companies in the future would be all sales people, and that the editors would just all be fired, and that they would have freelancers, you know, computers writing things, and databases — and, and my job would be over, and it would just be the sales people. They would rule the Earth. But for the last five or ten years, I’ve been thinking: no, the future of the media is that the sales people are all gonna disappear, and it’s just gonna be the editors and writers because they make the thing that has value. And Google, and it’s ilk, are going to completely invalidate all the ways that things get sold. That’s probably extreme, but some of that is happening. It is — It is really hard to use those old sales approaches in a world where there are ad networks, and ad exchanges, and Google out there to do this stuff. So that will be interesting to see. What is the right model for a media company? Is it a bunch of single people? Is it a collective of, like, five writers? Or is there room for a fifty, or a hundred person company with sales people, marketing people, and an editorial staff, and some staff writers, and some freelancers? That’s what we are, and I don’t know if that’s a shape that will fit in the landscape in five years. I honestly don’t know, it might. But it might be that what you really want is a staff of five or ten editors, and writers, and then a couple business people, and then an ad network. I really don’t know what the economics are going to be like.

Jason goes on to say that the middle-ground has dried up. That small places can get by, because they’re small, and big places can get by because they are eyeball/content mills. The stuff between those extremes is not making money. Paywalls scare people away, requiring larger fees, there need to be huge ads, or creepy advertorials, etc. Someone needs to pay for the stuff, and it’s not the traditional advertising sales model of “We’ll print X of these.” There are rumblings around Kickstarter, and Patreon, but they’re not fully tested, and Patreon can often be about financing someone that has a proven track record. People that seek funding often turn to swag, like shirts, and mugs, to gather money. It seems dubious, and unsustainable, to encourage people to make things for free, for a living, until they make money (cough). It’s also unstable. There need to be rainy-day funds, there needs to be capital. Dramatic ups and downs are no way for people to live. Project-based freelancing, without benefits, is not comfortable for many humans over the age of 30. Retirement benefits sound silly, when you’re young, because it feels like it’s a long way off. It’s not.

Jason says we can’t all be Daring Fireball, surely no one is going to read 18 Daring Fireballs. Text has a very low barrier to entry (hi) but that is no guarantee it’s any good (I need an editor!) or that it will satisfy the specific, steady intervals people want writing released in.

The written word is definitely still a part of our society, despite print’s ever-demising demise. People still lie in bed, scrolling through text, sit at work (totally on a break!) reading news, or enjoy their commutes with all the things they want to catch up on. The former Macworld writers, and editors, are still capable of offering that crucial service they offered before. Hopefully, they are satisfied by whatever options presented, or the options they make for themselves.

Jason’s desire to create for audiences rings true to me. Even when I work as an artist, I don’t always feel artistic. Silly things that can fulfill me in ways that I don’t always get from working on movies. That’s not to say that I hate movies, or that the writers hate writing, or the editors hate editing — but when the industry you are in is crumbling, while the industry that benefits from your work is excelling, it can make you bummed about your work, and your career. (I should have gone to business school, then I could finally art-direct movies.)

^1: I hope no one said that, “When God closes a door, he opens a window” line because that is just the worst. “This could be a good thing for you.” Is my runner-up.

2014-09-11 00:33:32

Category: text