Journalism’s welcome longevity

By Felix Salmon
February 14, 2012

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This week, Significance magazine (“statistics making sense”) reprinted a three-year-old article of mine about the Gaussian copula function. That story has had an impressive shelf life, and I’m incredibly happy that it will continue to be read for years to come. Sometimes it will be read in print publications, like Significance or book anthologies. But many, many more people will read it online. That’s great for Wired, both in terms of ongoing ad revenues (which are pretty small at this point) and in terms of its reputation for printing high-quality journalism with lasting value. (That value isn’t just journalistic, either: Wired’s parent, Conde Nast, is being very inventive in terms of monetizing old content.)

The fact that the internet has a long memory is wonderful for magazines online, as Tom Standage of the Economist recently noted.

After years of locking the search engines out, now suddenly their whole archive is available. A three year old article about Iran, he said, does just as good a job of advertising what they are about and why you should be reading them as the ones form this week. He said it was “crucial” that content could be “sampled and shared on social media.”

Matt Yglesias, however, sees a downside here, as more and more great magazine pieces are available online, for free, in perpetuity:

The existence of this deep back catalog is great for readers, but not necessarily as rewarding for the forward-looking production of longform pieces. Each day—each hour, even—all previous “newsy” items become obsolete and the demand for new newsy items is robust. But the existing stock of well-hewn blocks of substantial prose is already very large and it no longer depreciates the way it did in print.

I don’t buy it: the long-term upside, to any publication, of producing more well-hewn blocks of substantial prose is real, and, well, substantial. Meanwhile, Yglesias’s downside is that there’s already so much good stuff out there that it’s somehow satiating demand for such material.

In reality, of course, the supply of attention, when it comes to long magazine articles, is far from fixed. Nowadays especially, in the days of Instapaper and Longreads, people are reading more long-form journalism, from more outlets, than they ever did before. And there’s no indication that the rise in long-form consumption will level off any time soon. The more that magazines feed that demand, the more the demand will rise, in a virtuous cycle. Meanwhile, people will read less SEO-optimized crap from Demand Media. This too is a good thing.

One of Nick Denton’s less celebrated innovations was the creation, with Lifehacker, of a blog which lives more through its archives than through the new content that it puts up every day. Yes, Lifehacker has many loyal readers keeping an eye on its new posts. But the real value there is in what you might call the back catalogue — all those timeless posts which get steady pageviews for months or years.

It’s the difference between recording a throwaway pop song and recording a Beethoven symphony — the symphony is a much more laborious and expensive proposition, but it will sell for years to come. Orchestras don’t stop recording Beethoven symphonies just because lots of other orchestras have been there already. And the difference between new long-form journalism and old long-form journalism is a lot bigger than the difference between a new recording of Beethoven 5 and an old recording of Beethoven 5.


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I hope you didn’t pick that ridiculous title. (1) The underlying problem was the assumption of stable correlations, not the particular copula that was used to model them. (2) The fact that these models were not good for tail risk was very well known. People used different models and historical re-runs to try to quantify extreme events. (3) Different models might give different probabilities (all low) and different losses (all high) for extreme events, but in the end it doesn’t matter much. In a crisis, all correlations go to 1. If you are in a market when it collapses, you will loose everything, regardless of how good your risk models were.

Posted by DCWright | Report as abusive

There has always been this tension in journalism. They used to say that yesterday’s news was only good for wrapping fish. That’s why they always charge so much to look up old articles in their archives.

Posted by spiffy76 | Report as abusive

I liked your essay but thought your Great Man Theory of history went embarrassingly overboard:

“Li’s Gaussian copula formula will go down in history as instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees.”

Hmmm, well, it’s pretty to think so.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

DCWright, unless you are liquid enough to outwait the predators.

Posted by Danny_Black | Report as abusive

I think this policy is a boon for authors as well, as this copula paper of yours for instance is how I became aware of your writing.

Posted by Th.M | Report as abusive

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what content will stick around. A dozen years ago I wrote a series of articles that were only peripherally related to the technical publication in which they appeared. I wouldn’t call them works of art by any means, but one of them is still one of Google’s highest ranking search items related to me. I’ve had requests for copies and reprints from around the world, and it has been translated into at least four languages. Go figure.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

I thought Felix’s Wired article was one of the most interesting pieces of financial journalism that I’ve read over the past several years, though I’d agree that the line quoted by dedalus is over the top. To me the broader point is that common sense and the wisdom gained from experience always have a place in assessing if a course of action is reasonable, especially so when one is relying on the output of a model that’s ultimately dependent on human behavior.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

Yglesias appears to have fallen for the lump-of-paper fallacy.

Posted by djseattle | Report as abusive