I just read a very upsetting post on the website of Triple Canopy, a very interesting online mixed-media journal. On the site I found a link to a talk given by Roger Hodge, a friend from my college days who had a mercurial rise at the tender age of 37 to the editorship of Harper’s Magazine. I was very happy for him, particularly since I remember a conversation when he was thinking of moving out to Arizona to edit some sports magazine. Of course, I was also pretty envious.
Roger ascended into what passes for the stratosphere in media circles four years ago. Watching his presentation at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, I learned that he’s recently been given the sack. I’m terribly sad for him, although I imagine he’ll land on his feet given his eminence as an ex-editor of Harper’s.
In addition, however, Roger’s talk suggested that we should all we worried about the state of journalism. According to Roger, his recent fate is indicative of and of a piece with the broader decline in journalism. As he puts it, journalists made the terrible mistake of training their readers to expect writing for free, and now their occupation is disappearing since there are no viable sources of funding. Roger reels off some hair-raising statistics, including the fact that circulation is down 20% over the last two years at all the magazines that allow auditing, and that’s on top of a 10% decline the previous year. This terrible collapse began in earnest, Roger argues, in 2006.
It’s not clear what the solution is. Even someone in such a powerful position as Roger, editor at one of the two or three most significant venues for serious long-form journalism in the U.S., seems to have no answer. In fact, not only does he have no answer, but he seems incredibly, painfully pessimistic about the future. Efforts by newspapers and magazines to set up paywalls are doomed, he argues, since people are now habituated to reading journalism for free. The only way journalists can survive today is by writing books, one of the only forms of writing which people are still willing to buy.
Given this situation, it seems to me that institutions like universities are going to be one of the only sources where support for journalism is going to be found – at least in the U.S. The goal in the long term should I think be to push for state subvention along the lines of most major European nations, even if this seems like a pipe dream in this haven of neoliberalism. Without such a step, the danger is that journalists are going to become like poets in the U.S. today, whose vocation is no longer viable economically and who are totally dependent on teaching in academia in order to survive.
Anyway, here’s Roger’s talk:
For a far less pessimistic take, check out this interview with the editor of The Guardian, a paper which is held in a trust and is therefore subsidized.