The news that those of us who love good writing had been dreading finally came last Friday: Grantland is dead. No one can be particularly surprised at the move given ESPN’s acrimonious split with site founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons earlier this year. Indeed, the Atlantic predicted how all this would play out four years ago:
But Simmons will lose this battle — the rebellious teenager still relies too heavily on its parents for support — and ESPN will drive this site into the ground. It’s only a matter of time before he leaves. “I don’t know, I think I have one more big sellout of my career,” Simmons told Mahler. Well, at least ESPN didn’t name the site The SimmonsPost; naming it Grantland will make it easier to extract Simmons from the venture when the time comes.
READ MORE: Don’t miss our roundup of other things to read about Grantland over on Mere O Notes.
After the announcement a number of different people took to Twitter to discuss the story. Nicole Cliff of The Toast perhaps made some of the most important observations:
Sometimes I see people wish for the era of wealthy art patrons, and I’m just…that is still how your indie sites work.
— Nicold Blood (@Nicole_Cliffe) October 30, 2015
The Problem of Funding Writing
What drives this entire conversation, of course, is money. Sites like Grantland (and The Dissolve) are generally not going to make money. And this isn’t a new problem. Boutique magazines that do high quality work for a small readership have always depended upon business models that aren’t really sustainable. Harper‘s and The New Republic have always relied on wealthy patrons to keep their doors open. Today sites like The Intercept also rely upon a wealthy patron to keep them up and running. Before we mourned the shuttering of Grantland and The Dissolve similar readers mourned the demise of Partisan Review.
The chief issue is that there isn’t really a clear business product with writing. Writing itself is something that people are generally reluctant to pay for—and that was true even before the internet was around. Writing businesses have almost always required some other means of funding themselves, whether that was advertising revenue, a wealthy patron, or promoting other events that generate much of the company’s revenue.
What made advertising especially lucrative in the pre-digital world was the unique challenges of creating media during that era. In the pre-digital era, it was incredibly expensive to produce and distribute media. Put another way, if you wanted to tell a lot of people anything—whether that was advertising your product, printing your short story, running an essay—good luck.
In those days you needed people who wrote or shot whatever it was you producing. You needed designers to make it look good. You needed complicated, expensive printers to print the material in large enough quantities to get to your target audience. You needed people to then distribute the printed media to that audience.
There were enormous barriers to entering the media business. So if you were an advertiser, you couldn’t dream of creating your own media to get the word out about your product. You had to work through one of the few media outlets that already had a large audience. The result is that those media companies that did exist were tremendously profitable. That reality goes some way toward explaining stories like the ones Maureen Dowd tells in her column reflecting on her time at Time in the early 1980s. But even though times were pretty good for writers in those days, people weren’t paying for the writing back then either. They just paid obscene amounts of money for ads and all that money was going to print media companies that paid writers.
Cheap Platforms and a Personal Writing Economy
When you fast-forward from the print economy to the early days of the internet—which we can probably trace from around 1995 until about 2006 when Facebook became open to the general public—you have a new order that wouldn’t last but that still basically worked as far as the writing economy is concerned. Advertising revenue from print ads was still decent and building a sustainable, long-term audience online wasn’t that difficult either.
We didn’t yet have social media streams in the way we do today, so the primary way of reading online was through bookmarked sites that one visited manually on a regular basis or through RSS feeds that sent everything a specific writer or publication ran directly to an RSS reader. The most common way of discovering new things was through the hyperlink which tied together independent sites run by individual reporters or even amateur bloggers.
Together, this combination of factors created a fairly unique order in which publishers were still viable, though reasons for concern certainly existed, and in which getting noticed as a writer was relatively easy and, compared to today, remarkably cheap. If you could set up a website and didn’t mind putting in a lot of (unpaid) time to make it good, you had a decent shot at picking up paid work. Indeed, many of today’s biggest names in journalism started out as amateur bloggers during this era.
Bill Simmons started out on AOL Boston. Ezra Klein had a personal blog, as did Ben Domenech. Glenn Greenwald was a lawyer doing some irregular journalism work online. Each of those four are now major media editors leading huge publications. Other journalists, like Megan McArdle, have similar stories. Joe Carter, if I recall, got his start with a personal blog during these years as well, though he can correct me if I’m wrong on that.
And these bloggers weren’t just getting national jobs at major publishers who already had money or with non-profits trying to get into the media game. We also saw bloggers getting hired on the local level. The best Husker football writer going today is Sam McKewon of the Omaha World-Herald. But before he joined the OWH, he wrote for a small online site called Nebraska State Paper.
Besides creating an environment in which it was easy to get noticed, this combination of factors also made it easy to feel more connected to individual writers. This era gave us journalists who started to look less like journalists and more like highly informed people that made themselves available for regular conversation. This era saw the ascent of both Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher. (Dreher’s role in this conversation is particularly interesting since he is one of the last true bloggers still going.)
With these writers you weren’t necessarily expecting reported features that came out every few days or even weeks or months. There was still some reporting, but you mostly expected more immediate reflections on an eclectic range of topics. This new approach to journalism drastically redefined (or even eliminated) the line between reader and writer. In its most extreme form, it essentially became a conversation between multiple readers, one of whom happened to pull a paycheck for churning out large amounts of writing that facilitated conversation.
With these writers the “product” that readers wanted was less raw information, as in the old media days, and more access to their way of seeing the world and to their considerable talent for curating the internet and making sense of the increasingly large amount of written work being done online. And just to be clear—I don’t mean any of this as criticism of the writers from this era. Churning out large amounts of readable copy on a basically non-stop schedule is a unique talent and these writers provide a real value to the reading public, even if it’s becoming more and more difficult to see how their work fits into the increasingly long-form-or-click-bait world we live in.
The Shift Toward the Stream
The early internet was defined by the dominance of individual writers and lack of a centralized structure for organizing written content online. Google Reader came close to providing this, but it basically existed as nothing more than an organizing device for managing your interest in specific writers. It was a tool that reinforced the decentralized structure of the web rather than a new platform that brought everything together into one place.
This all changed with the launch of Twitter and opening of Facebook, both of which came in 2006. Though it would take time for their importance to journalism to become clear, eventually they came to dominate the journalism industry as the primary means through which people found the things they read online. This changed journalism on the web in two important ways:
- First, it transformed “what?” journalism (as opposed to “so what?” and “now what?” journalism) by eliminating the cash value of raw information. 25 years ago if I wanted any sort of information about Nebraska football, I had to buy a subscription to a paper. Now I can hop on Twitter and get that information for free.
- Second, it shifted the web away from a relatively open environment toward a closed environment. Pre-Facebook and -Twitter, the dominant way of following writers was through bookmarks and RSS feeds and the dominant way of finding writers was the hyperlink. All three of these things ultimately pointed you toward properties that the writer or the writer’s employer owned. With Facebook and Twitter, that changed. Now the dominant way we find things to read is through the social share. And all of that is mediated through the closed platforms of Facebook and Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Google.
To further complicate the picture, we also started to see print advertising revenue drop off even more after 2006. By the end of 2012 Google AdWords alone generated more advertising revenue (all of which went to Google) then all the nation’s print advertising revenue combined. In the years following 2005, print ad revenue basically fell off a cliff, declining 73% in only 15 years with most of the damage coming between 2005 and 2010. You could see this shocking fall reflected in the sale prices of newspapers as well.
The Boston Globe sold in 2013 for $70 million only 20 years after selling for $1.1b. (That’s a 93% drop in value.) Likewise the nation’s second largest paper of record and most respected paper in the nation’s capital, the Washington Post, sold for $250m in 2013 which sounds like a lot until you realize that the text messaging app What’s App sold for something between $16b and $22b in the same year. We also saw papers like the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and New Orleans’ Time-Picayune either shut down, go web-only, or shift to a 3-4 day per week print schedule. The Christian-Science Monitor suffered a similar fate.
Thus the two factors that made the early internet era a reasonably good one for journalists were both obliterated: The (comparatively) stable financial conditions disappeared and the high level of control that journalists enjoyed over their work online was also stolen away. The hyperlink was replaced by the retweet on Twitter and the share on Facebook. Even the writer’s or publication’s website itself is now being absorbed by Facebook via Facebook’s new Instant Articles feature. Apple is also experimenting with a similar feature and Google is increasingly scraping content and displaying it on its own search results pages without ever sending users to the external website that hosts the content it is scraping.
In addition to the centralizing influence of these large tech companies with gigantic platforms, there is the further problem of what happens as new media outlets become dependent on big business to fund their work. Vice, purportedly one of the bad boys of the new media, “runs stories up the flag pole” when they fear offending one of their biggest advertisers. ESPN canned Bill Simmons after he took one shot too many at the NFL and shuttered Grantland only five months later. Buzzfeed has taken down posts critical of their biggest corporate sponsors.
Thus whether it is the centralization of the internet itself or the migration of amateur bloggers to major media companies, we are seeing journalists losing control over their work, either because they cannot gain an audience without selling out to Facebook or some other large business that serves as a distribution channel or because they cannot keep a job without selling out to a big business like the NFL which serves as a financial backer. Even some of the bright spots for editorial independence and quality journalistic work such as Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept rely upon a benevolent patron to keep the site running.
The Future of Writing on the Web
When you consider the business side of writing online, it’s hard to feel too optimistic. The problem isn’t that there’s no money, although that is often how it seems. If current trends hold, then we’ll see a 33% increase in total advertising spend in the United States from 2012 to 2018. Businesses are still paying for advertising. But generally writers and publications are no longer the recipient of those ad dollars.
In the best case scenario, sites like Vox.com and Buzzfeed will be able to use the traffic brought in by click-baity headlines (which will hopefully direct people to things that are actually interesting instead of derivative Upworthy-type crap) and the considerable ad revenue that comes with it to subsidize high-quality reporting and creative critical essays. But to do that they will have to resist the siren-like song of the big brands paying those advertising fees and the big tech companies calling them to embrace their proprietary platforms that radically reduce the writer’s ability to develop their own unique identity as a journalist or thinker.
That said, there is a real opportunity as well. For writers who have some other marketable skill by which they can make a living (and cultivating such a skill is probably worthwhile even in a more functional writing economy) there is an opportunity here to do wonderfully bold and creative work that is joyfully indifferent to the opinions of the suits and haircuts at the NFL or Disney or Dove. And for those who can reliably make a living without needing to sell out to Facebook and Twitter, it is still actually not all that difficult to set up your own site and get to work building an audience. (We’ll hopefully have more on this soon.) In addition, we can do the serious work of thinking about how to make writers (rather than focusing narrowly on how to make money from writing) and how to build an online republic of letters through which we can discuss the important ideas of the day.
If you are someone wanting a conventional journalism job, now is a pretty crummy time to be working. But if you are someone who values the written word, then this may be one of the best times ever to be alive. In Nehemiah we’re told that the people who returned to Jerusalem “had a mind to work.” If we have such a mind today, then there are great things we can accomplish.