What's Up with Mainstream Magazines and Media?


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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 Standard 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.


jellis@nypress.com


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