What’s Up with Mainstream Magazines and Media?

Written by John Ellis on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Okay. Let’s take a
look. Right here on my desk are the most recent editions of Fast Company
(for which I write a regular column) and Wired. Among the "desperate
for attention" Net companies advertising inside these tomes are: General
Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, IBM, Compaq, Gateway,
Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and, well, you get the idea.
If you threw all of the dot-com company advertising out, Fast Company
and Wired would still be very thick.

Advertisers like General
Motors and Charles Schwab are not advertising in New Economy magazines for the
fun of it. They’re advertising in these magazines because their advertising
agency media departments have reams of research that show that people read
magazines like Wired and Fast Company and Business 2.0
and Fortune and Forbes ASAP, spend time with them, actually look
forward to their arrival in the mail.

And there’s a reason
for that, which is this: The most provocative and compelling journalism being
done today is appearing in what you might call "other" publications.
We’ll leave Fast Company out of this, since I work there. But look
at which publications are doing really great work these days. Wired has
had one great issue after another in the last year. Bill Joy’s piece about
the dangers posed by robotics, genomics and nanotechnology was perhaps the most
important piece of political journalism in the last four years (even if you
disagreed with his conclusions). Fortune has transformed itself into
the only must-read publication in the Time Warner publishing empire; some issues
are literally brimming with great stories and interviews. Science and
Scientific American are doing remarkable work keeping readers on top
of the latest scientific breakthroughs and developments. The Economist
keeps producing high-quality packages and special reports, as well as comprehensive
coverage of global politics. The Harvard Business Review this year published
the single best discussion of the impact of genomics on the global economy anywhere.
Even magazines like The Industry Standard and Business 2.0 are
routinely publishing great stuff about digital technology and its implications
(and The Industry Standard is a trade publication).

The question is not: What’s
Up with Those Big, Fat New Economy Magazines? The question is what’s up
with the mainstream press? Begin with The New York Times. What’s
up with the Kremlin on 43rd St.? Let’s see. The "Business" section
is mediocre, at best. The "Sports" section is lame. "Metro"
is uneven. The op-ed page (with the exception of Maureen Dowd) is ponderous.
The editorial page is clueless. The "Circuits" section is an embarrassment,
and "Workplace" is worse. The "Arts & Ideas" section
on Saturday is a haven of crackpot academic theory. The magazine has thinned
down to a double-digit page count. The political coverage is–let’s
be generous–biased. It’s a mess.

Look at Newsweek,
the processed cheese of weekly newsmagazines. Last week’s cover was on
Napster, which was a huge story on college campuses in September and October
of 1999. That’s eight months ago. Inside last week’s
issue was a news item about Inside.com, the new website devoted to the entertainment
industry. Inside.com is an interesting idea, and has already published some
high-quality work. Newsweek’s take on Inside.com was that it should
have hired a more capable valet parking service for its launch party in Los
Angeles. I’m not making this up. They even quoted a publicist, anonymously,
who was aghast that better valet parking was not available.

Go through the magazine
and find Jonathan Alter, Jane Bryant Quinn and Anna Quindlen; each more tedious
than the next. The economy is being transformed right before our eyes, exponential
discovery in virtually every scientific discipline is sparking a knowledge revolution,
telecommunications and technology are radically altering global politics, trade
and borders and these people are boring us to death with drivel. If Newsweek
were a dog, someone would put it to sleep.

But it’s not just Newsweek.
Even good magazines are missing the journalistic opportunity. David Remnick
has, in the words of a friend of mine, returned The New Yorker to its
natural constituency. And in many ways, he has improved the product. What he
has not done is publish the pieces that make people sit up and say: "Wow!"
Twenty years ago, Juan Enriquez and Ray Goldberg’s great piece on genomics
and the global economy would have appeared in The New Yorker, not in
The Harvard Business Review. Twenty years ago, Bill Joy’s treatise
on genomics, robotics and nanotechnology would have appeared in The New Yorker,
not in Wired. Twenty years ago, Walter Mead’s analysis of the Jacksonian
tradition in American politics would have appeared in The New Yorker,
not in The National Interest.

The relentless dumbing down
of mainstream media has opened up a world of opportunity for new journalistic
players. When Time and Newsweek stopped providing their readers
with comprehensive coverage of national and international news, The Economist
rolled in and gobbled up all those high-end readers. When The New York Times
couldn’t make up its mind about covering digital technology, a host of
publications rushed in to fill the void. And while Vanity Fair keeps
pumping out celebrity profiles, magazines like Wired, Scientific American
and Fast Company eschew celebrity altogether and grapple with the implications
of digital and genomic convergence.

The rap on the New Economy
magazines is that they’re strong on concept but weak on execution. This
is a fair criticism. Business 2.0, for example, is not as well written,
reported or edited as it might be. But at each of these New Economy magazines,
the process of upgrading the journalistic product has begun in earnest. In two
years, the editorial staffs at Wired and Fast Company and Industry
will be every bit as good, if not better, than the staffs at the
business sections of any mainstream publication.

What drives all these nonmainstream
and "other" publications is ideas. Magazines like Wired and
The Harvard Business Review and The Economist aren’t selling
celebrity or lists of rich people and moguls. Sex in the City might be
fun to watch on television, but does anyone actually want to read about it?
Gerald Levin and Ted Turner and Michael Eisner might be movers and shakers in
medialand, but what’s moving and shaking the world are converging digital
technologies, genomics research, robotics and nanotechnologies. Power brokers
can make things happen in Washington or New York or Los Angeles, but in the
larger realm their influence is as nothing when compared to the impact of these
new technologies.

Ideas and the people thinking
them up aren’t getting covered in the mainstream media. They’re packaged
as "trends" and "futurists." This mainstream media misreading
of what’s really happening has enabled a host of new and reinvented publications
to capture the attention of the most important sector of the reading audience.
New Economy and other magazines aren’t jammed with advertising because
dot-com companies are desperate for attention. They’re doing well because
they’re covering what people need–and want–to know.