Why can’t you find The Greatest Publication Ever Made on any newsstand or web browser or TV network? Because people don’t want it.
This is America, where journalism is a business like any other. This is not England. The government will not be raining down supplemental income to support quality journalism. Take that socialism elsewhere! Here in America, journalism is media and media is a business. The upside of this is that it serves to align the product that media companies produce with the true interests of the public. The downside is that the true interests of the public are, for the most part, garbage.
People are sentimental about journalism. The only people more sentimental about journalism than journalists are wealthy people who imagine that they would like to own a media outlet. Journalism straddles the line between literature and public service, and because of that its appeal is broad enough to intoxicate everyone from self-admiring intellectuals to civic-minded crusaders. Many writers believe that our brilliant writing will naturally create its own audience. The moving power of our words, the clarity and meaning of our reporting, the brilliance of our wit, the counterintuitive nature of our insights, the elegance with which we sum up the world’s problems; these things, we imagine, will leave the universe no choice but to conjure up an audience for us each day.
The problem is that nobody ever bothers to inform the audience. In fact, this imaginary Universal Law of Writing—“Make something great and the readers will come”—is false. It has always been false, though that does not prevent it from being harbored deep in the heart of every ambitious writer and prestige-starved press baron. The history of journalism is littered with the corpses of good publications. The “new media” world is no different. The “long tail” and “audience segmentation” and every other buzzword term does not change the nature of the business. The audience for quality prestige content is small. Even smaller than the actual output of quality prestige content, which itself is smaller than most media outlets like to imagine.
Name a publication or media outlet that is a thriving, successful business solely on the basis of its high quality, intellectual, prestigious stories. There are none. If you want to run a publication that only publishes things that are good, you have a few options. You can be a small operation that operates on a relatively shoestring budget (The Awl network, niche journals of all sorts). You can be independently wealthy, and spend that money on your publication (call me please). You can find someone else who is independently wealthy and wants to spend their own money on the publication as a sort of charity (Harpers). You can be the prestige product of a much larger media empire that makes money on a wide array of garbage and sends some of those profits to you to redeem itself (The New Yorker, Grantland). Or, you can somehow convince people to invest in you on the premise that you will be the amazing publication that does make money with pure quality, only to fail when that money runs out (too many to name).
None of this is an indictment of all of the people who dream of putting out quality “content” for a living. It would be great if their dream came true. But it never does—or if it does, it only lasts for brief moments, when economies are booming so profoundly that money is washing over everything in great waves. Very recent history shows that this timeless dynamic does not change. Grantland? Proof that even ESPN is unwilling to subsidize an unprofitable product forever. Al-Jazeera America? An oil-rich nation dreamt of a quality global news network and spent insane amounts of money building one. It did not attract many viewers. Then the price of oil dropped, and the money ran out, and now Al-Jazeera America is dead. The New Republic? It did okay for a long time as a small print publication catering to an elite niche, though it was never a moneymaker; when a rich guy bought it who thought he could turn it into a viable business, chaos ensued, complaints ensued, and now the rich guy is giving up.
What sorts of publications and media outlets are viable businesses? Mass media outlets that have huge scale and publish everything for everyone (TV news networks, major national newspapers, Buzzfeed) or very niche publications that focus solely on a very specific field and own it definitively (trade magazines). That’s about it. “Thing full of really amazing literary nonfiction” falls into neither of these categories. The compromise that most places tend to make is to publish a bunch of garbage with broad appeal—celebrity stories! Sex stories! Animal stories! Simplistic personal finance stories! Scary true crime stories! Sports stories! Real estate porn! Overly grim “us vs. them” narratives! Jazzed up horse race journalism! Listicles! Photo essays! Recipes! Food opinioneering! And countless other fluff beloved by the general public!—and then use the audience and revenue generated by these things to subsidize the good stuff. This, to some degree, is the model used by viable news outlets from the New York Times to Buzzfeed to Gawker Media to Slate to Vanity Fair. If this basic model proves at all shaky, publications will grasp for just about any other revenue stream they can find to shore things up, from a wine club (NYT) to a conference business (The Atlantic) to Amazon links hawking products (us).
Maybe there is a talented young writer out there with a dream of starting the very best, smartest magazine or website that has ever existed, and building it into their very own historic legacy. I am here to tell you that it will not work. The business of media has very little, if anything, to do with quality journalism. If you aspire to be a Writer of Legitimately Good Things, the best you can hope for is to get the prestige spot that is paid for by the garbage. To hope for a prestige spot that is not paid for by garbage, or by a lone rich wacko, or by a new advertising technology, but instead by the mass audience that will flock to your brilliance is to ask for too much. If you are able to get a job writing good stuff, you are one of the lucky ones in the big Exercycle of Mindless Entertainment that is “the media.”
The good thing about this fact, though, is that once you understand it, you will no longer be mystified as to why great magazines don’t flourish, or why your favorite writer ended up getting laid off. The answer is that quality and audience do not go together. The media is not the enemy of thoughtful writing. The public is. The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can stop hating both of them for the wrong reasons, and start hating both of them for what they really are.