Journalism’s welcome longevity

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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