Alexis Madrigal, technology editor of the Atlantic, recently wrote a funny and disturbing piece called A Day In the Life of A Digital Editor, 2013
The great thing about the story is that it cuts through the debate about the future of journalism by using the simple math that every editor uses when planning his or her calendar.
Let me give you this hypothetical. You are a digital editor at a fine publication. You are in charge of writing some stuff, commissioning some stuff, editing some stuff. Maybe you have an official traffic goal, or (more likely), you want to be awesome, qualitatively and quantitatively….
You have a limited, sometimes very limited, monthly budget. So, what do you do? You could write the stories yourself, find people who will write for nothing or almost nothing, aggregate, take partner content, or re-write press releases as fast as you can. You could even bet the farm on one long-form story.
But here’s the weird thing: While the top six or seven viral hits might make up 15-20 percent of a given month’s traffic, the falloff after that is steep. And once you’re out of the top 20 or 30 stories, a really, really successful story is only driving 0.5 percent or less of a place like The Atlantic’s monthly traffic. But that’s the best-case scenario. In most cases, even great reported stories will fizzle, not spark. They will bring in 1,000 or 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 visitors. You’d need thousands of these to make a big site go.
If you have an annual budget of $100,000, you can hire two staffers at $50,000 each, retain 10 part-time freelancers at $10,000, assign 200 stories at $500,or assign 2,000 posts at $50. But, as Madrigal says, no matter how you slice it, paying people is only going to get part-way to your goals.
It sounds desperate, but Madrigal is hopeful. He reminds us that magazine math has never added up. Magazines have been often been maintained by wealthy owners willing to subsidize their publications. Big media companies like Conde Nast and Hearst have spent their newspaper profits on magazine losses. A handful of magazines — People, Vogue, Better Homes & Gardens — have been the revenue engines that drove whole magazine chains.
What does Madrigal do in the face of these calculations? He works hard, helps his colleagues and hopes it will all work out.
And then, you hope hope hope that this amounts to something sustainable. Because I owe it to this institution to help ensure its survival. I’ll be damned if The Atlantic dies with my generation…
Ironically, a week after Madrigal wrote his article, Carly Carioli, editor of the Boston Phoenix, remembered when she made the same vow:
When I took over as editor in chief, a job I’d dreamed about for nearly 20 years, I made a solemn oath uttered only to myself that I would not be the last editor of the Phoenix. To my colleagues, past and present: I’m sorry I wasn’t able to see it through. I first set foot here in 1993, still in college, and I’ve spent half my life in the service of this particular way of making journalism; it’s been a blessing to spend that long among the most talented, creative, and passionate people I’ve ever met. I can’t begin to describe how much it hurts to lose this.
The Phoenix closed its doors on March 14.