How to fix the Conde Nast business model
Peter Kafka has a great piece on Conde Nast, specifically how this once dominant publishing enterprise now struggles and what this means for incoming editor Roger Lynch.
“The magazine industry is in decline because the magazine industry’s core product — packaging stories and ads and presenting them together in a discrete bundle — is in decline, for an obvious reason: Readers and advertisers are more interested in spending their time and money in other ways.”
This post is an anthropological addendum to Kafka’s original. It attempts to answer why readers and advertisers are spending their time and money elsewhere.
Conde Nast and American culture come unstuck
In the post war period, America howled with change. The New Yorker and Vogue were excellent guides, a way to keep a fix on how culture was changing. These publications were working out of New York City, with a select set of gifted journalists, each of them plugged into a series of exquisite networks that ran from the Manhattan delta back into the worlds of innovation. The New Yorker and Vogue made themselves the bearers of essential intelligence. Readers were periodically “read in” to the state of contemporary culture, briefed like so many diplomats, politicians or spies, their cultural capital perpetually topping up.
But American culture changed. So much innovation, from too many parties, with so many effects. Pyromaniacs are now running the fire works factory. (And I don’t just mean Trump. There’s now a Trump on every street corner.) Unsurprisingly, the beautiful intelligence systems called The New Yorker and Vogue have been overwhelmed.
Readers no longer use these publications as they once did. They extract knowledge that is interesting but, for “read in” purposes, this knowledge is now less essential.
in sum 1: the value proposition is broken.
2) In the post war period, people were eager to hear from The New Yorker and Vogue. Eager, indeed, to defer and imitate. The value proposition was bigger than mere intelligence. It was also a matter of sensibility. What was the right style of life and view of world? Vogue and The New Yorker could supply these too. There was a hierarchy in place. Readers knew their place and accepted it. Publications were nice about it. They didn’t actively scorn the reader. (Well, sometimes they did. Paul Fussell made a career revealing status secrets to provincial readers and then scorning them for their interest.)
This is over, mostly. Hierarchy is dying. Deference is tired and tiresome. Provincial readers are no longer provincial. The level of education has risen. Data are distributed. The cultural advantage that comes from living in New York City is radically diminished. Anyone who works as a creative or a strategist routinely looks behind the curtain of American culture. There are few secrets and fewer elites. High culture knowledge is no longer “must know” capital. Neither, interestingly, is avant-garde knowledge. In sum, the New Yorker (both the person and the publication) knows less, and when he/she/it does know more, this matters less.
The reader is no longer a supplicant. The New Yorker and Vogue no longer have quite the same authority. The relationship is no longer quite so asymmetrical.
in sum 2: the value relationship is broken, too.
3) But the problem goes deeper still.
Conde Nast sits in an imperiled middle. This is where “stories” live, to be sure, but, as little bundles of proper nouns, events, causes and consequences, these stories do not take us deeply enough into details or high enough to see the big picture. “Stories” feel like a Victorian machine. Charming and noisy in a Steampunk kind of way. Dear but not useful. The scale and mechanics are just wrong. Any and all claims to utility now dubious.
Conde Nast sits in a certain middle because it is hoping to speak to as many readers (of a kind) as possible. The notion is that the article that really impresses a Methodist minister from the rough and tumble part of Cleveland, Ohio will mystify, perhaps even antagonize just about everyone else.
But, miraculously, the first principle of mass marketing and mass media has been repudiated. The status system of the post war period is suddenly ineffective and people are beginning to think of privilege as a trap. (There are several architects of the mighty ideological change, but one chief hell-raiser was Alice Waters.) Once a reward, an indulgence, an entitlement, privilege now feels “gated” or better “gating.” I have collected the ethnographic data and these data say that privilege is beginning to make people feel limited and unsophisticated. It makes them wondered if they run the risk of having the world steal a march on them. If that Methodist minister has her wits about her, her story may very well prove keenly interesting and useful…even for people who happen to occupy, through no fault of their own, quite different genders, classes, cities, and occupations. The devil is in these details, not the generalities. We are mobile and we are curious. We are (all) anthropologists. This makes the old publishing trade offs and compromises misleading.
This brings us to the big picture. Because, yes, generalities, properly constructed, do sometimes still matter. Without them we cannot see the future coming. And it is now ferociously and perpetually on approach. Sometime after World War II, “trends” died. They ran like large, handsome breakers through American culture, bringing consensus as they went. Now (cliche alert) it’s a perfect storm out there, with lots of trends moving in all directions, colliding in ways that make them impossible to track in conventional ways. And this puts paid to the diffusion models of the post war period, the ones that said if we wanted to know the future of the middle class we only needed to consult their early adopting betters (New York writers, say). The new journalism will have to look more like O’Hare on those windy summer days when the flight schedule takes on a wistful, poetic quality. (Your flight from LA? We have no idea.) This journalism will need a new kind of pattern recognition. Conde Nast may or may not be equal to the task. And this threatens the enterprise with what Taleb would call a “black swan” (i.e., an unanticipated disruption) because someone out there surely is.
Conde Nast uses conventional categories of understanding…at the very moment when these are being deformed and reformed. It uses language like “story,” “politics,” “artist,” “family,” “corporation,” “community,” “self,” “democracy,” as if these terms had not been blown to bits. This makes Conde Nast journalism a shell game. We can’t know what it’s saying. That is unless the story is formed by genre, in which cases it’s not clear why we’re bothering with it in the first place.
The loyalty to the “story” model of journalism is understandable. Simplicity, clarity, everyday language, these represent the deepest contracts between journalist and reader. But the underlying assumptions are now up for grabs. To presume them blithely on the page, it’s like taking Bolivian currency from the 19th century to our local Bank of America and hoping for a kind reception. The old exchange models are broken. We can’t use them to talk about the world in a way that matters.
Glassy and calm. That’s the quality of much American journalism. Beneath the text murmurs a lovely conviction: “this is obvious, you are smart, hey, you get it, let’s move on.” This has always been a little disingenuous. Now it’s flat out dissembling. (Well, unless of course it’s delusional. I mean, if the journalist does not recognize the sleight of hand he/she performs.) We have scant grounds for confidence. The only thing we know for certain is that the world streams with change, that most propositional bets are iffy, that most rhetorical devices are unreliable. The biggest shared assumption of all, of course, is that we share assumptions. This is really unreliable. And if this is now in question, it’s time to stop making glib assumptions about our ability to create the effortless, efficient or reliable acts of communication. (I make this argument only to contradict my argument. Sorry. Not sorry.)
Long form work has a problem of its own. The author, present but unassuming, starts us off with a very particular story, and mines the details every so patiently until the transmission of the idea is accomplished as if by magic. One of the masters of this form is John McPhee, a writer who was so good at making the details speak that The New Yorker is now addicted to his voice. It’s as if the journalist is frightened of frightening the horses. She must now eschew abstractions, metaphors, reckless claims (as above). It’s all so very patronizing. And laborious. And finally, if we are going to be honest about it, ever so slightly anti-intellectual. (Gasp.)
And then there is the herd mentality as people cluster around the intellectual trend of the moment. Someone has an idea (say, “digital engagement is bad for you!”) and then for several months everyone gives voice to exactly the same revelation as if it were new, fresh and totally original. It becomes the worldly, the tough minded, the “I really care about the world,” thing to say on line and especially over drinks. As if, God forgive us, there could be something entirely, unreservedly wrong about a technology that gives us instant access to knowledge and social connection whenever, wherever we want. The New Yorker should be working harder to murder nonsense in its crib.
I am not calling for philosophical discourse, pontificating experts or academics going all papal on us. The post modernists broke the Liberal Arts and they just don’t care. They have committed a crime against the species, and they just don’t care. The last thing we want them to do is have a go at public discourse.
In a sense, this is simple Marc Andreessenian wisdom. Publishing has suffered a disintermediation. Software is eating the world. Magazines were a nice light snack. Put it this way, and the future is clear. We have to find a way to change how a magazine mediates between the reader and the world. The solutions will not be merely digital. There is no simple UX solution, no algorithmic fix. We have to rethink categories and conventions, all that cultural stuff. All that cultural stuff the digital world likes to think is residual and likely to work out on its own. But it won’t. So the problem may be Andreessenian, but the solution probably won’t be.
Thoughts on how to create value
1) The real insight comes not from “story” but from the deeper dive and the bigger picture. The middle matters less and less. Go high. Dig deep.
2) The language of the story is itself a story. We can’t assume that even the simplest terms are reliable. Examine assumptions. Entertain alternatives. Show what differences follow from one choice over another. Most of all, we want to use language not as something transparent to reality, but as something that needs reformation.
3) There is no privileged point of view. Tell the story from several points of view, class, race, gender. Identities flourish. We are multi-perspectival. (Without being in the least Baudrillardian about it. Meaning matters. Culture continues.) This should look great on the page. And it is the world according to John Stewart Mill. So.
4) Let’s stop acting as if the story, once told, is over. What the reader needs is an arc. What came before. Where things stand now. Where things might go from here. Show things in process. This change is just now taking place in the strategic world. Until very recently, strategy firms would sell the client on a new idea with the implicit notion that “change this and you are done!” We are beginning to see that good strategies have a “best by” date. Let’s advise readers as we do clients: “this too shall pass. We want you to get into this strategy/stock/market/innovation in 12 months and out of it in 24 months.” The story is a window. Everything rushes through it.
5) Even the most sinuous prose style will not be sufficient. We need statistical data. Nothing effortful. Let’s be honest. No one wants to “do the math.” But data visualizations, these are essential. Again, it’s a world in motion and a story that only quantitative data can tell.
6) And speaking of Peter Kafka (and Kara Swisher), we must ask why pod casts are flourishing. Some insights come most surely when crackling up out of all the “noise on the line” of a real conversation. It turns out that some of the stuff the writer was supposed to eliminate, we want back in. Why? That’s a story too.
What publication will step up and reinvent reporting? The world set sail. Journalism stands on a wharf in 19th century Manhattan, smiling bravely. Who will rescue it?
in sum 3: parts of journalism are broken
It’s a lot to fix. The value proposition, the relationship and the model. Until we fix these problems, we can’t hope to fix the business model. We won’t get people to pay for content. But once we do, they will. The new journalism will be worth a fortune.
Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is the author of 12 books including most recently Culturematic, Flock and Flow, and Dark Value. He is the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is a cofounder of the Artisanal Economies Project. Grant has taught at the Harvard, University of Cambridge, and MIT. He advises widely, including Google, Ford Foundation, Kanye West, Netflix, Boston Book Festival, Nike, and the White House (no, the other one).