My changing media habits (or: there is no crisis!)

D1606SU1

More than three years ago–it seems like three decades–I wrote an eight-chapter Special Report in The Economist in which I tried to envision the future of the media. (It starts here, for those of you with a subscription.)

In it I argued that we (society) were in the midst of a transformation equal in significance to that started by Gutenberg’s printing press during the Renaissance. One media era was ending, another starting:

  • Old: Media companies produce content & captive, passive audience consumes it.
  • New: Everybody produces content and shares, consumes, remixes it.
  • Old: Media companies lecture the audience (one to many).
  • New: The audience has conversations among itself (many to many).

To show you how long three years can be, consider:

  • As part of my Special Report, I did our (The Economist‘s) very first podcasts–a word that many of the editors in London had not even heard yet. Today our podcasts are among the most popular on iTunes.
  • During my research for the Report, I heard the word “YouTube” for the first time (the company had just been founded). When I sent the Report to the editor, it contained one single reference to YouTube. Four (!) weeks later, when the Report was published, YouTube had already become the biggest story of that year (2006).
  • I had never heard of Facebook (not to mention Twitter). And so on.

How I use the media today

All of this sounds quaint today, so I thought I might share with you how my personal media habits have changed since my Report, and then answer some questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up?
  • Would I refine it today?
  • Is there a media “crisis”?

1) More efficiency in my work life

Back in 2006, I still subscribed to a lot of paper newspapers and magazines, as all journalists used to do, in order to “keep up” with the competition and to be informed. Those things piled up on my floor and made me feel guilty.

Today I have no paper subscription at all! I have precisely two electronic subscriptions on my Kindle, one newspaper (The New York Times) and one magazine (The Atlantic).

I use my Kindle in the morning over my latte to catch up with the global headlines, the mass market “news”. It is almost relaxing. It takes maybe 15 minutes. Later in the day, if I am driving, I will listen to NPR in the car. That represents my entire consumption of “mainstream” media through their traditional distribution channels. I do not own a TV set.

After I put down my Kindle, my work starts. This means that I open my own, personal “newspaper”, which is my RSS Reader. Here is what it looked like yesterday:

Reader.

In my RSS reader I mix “feeds” from the “head” and the “long tail”, from the LA Times to small blogs on California politics and obscure research outfits such as the Public Policy Institute of California.

The important thing to note here is that I have

  1. disassembled many disparate publications and information sources, including sources not traditionally considered “news”, and
  2. reassembled them as only I can for my own productivity. I have thus replaced “editors” and will never, ever allow them back into this part of my life.

I probably spend an hour or so reading inside my RSS reader. This is not so relaxing. I consider it work. This is my deep dive into stuff I need to know to cover my beat (ie, the Western states). I don’t worry about printing or filing anything because I tag the items, knowing that I can search for them in future. (And yes, that means that my office is now paperless.) Sometimes I hit “share” and my editor can see what I’m reading.

Then I’m done for the day, and I move on a) to do research for my stories and b) to take occasional study breaks for fun with the other media….

2) My intellectual life: Social curation

In my “private” (ie, non-Economist) existence, I now essentially live the vision that I sketched in my Special Report. Which is to say that I am simultaneously the audience for other “amateur” producers of content and an amateur producer myself. This is simply a highfalutin way of saying:

  • I blog (right here) for motivations that are not remotely commercial, and
  • I read other blogs for intellectual stimulation, and
  • I occasionally post to my Facebook news feed, and
  • I glance into the Facebook updates of people I know.

Through the blog, Facebook and the old-fashioned medium of email, I now have a spontaneous and unplanned but remarkably efficient and bespoke system of social curation for my media content.

I can easily spend an hour or two a day just following the links that you guys, ie my blog readers, provide. Virtually all of you on this blog have never met me in person but you have a keen sense of my intellectual tastes by now, and you provide links that are, for the most part, stunningly relevant. Sometimes you bring to the surface specific research papers or articles in obscure journals that I would never have discovered in the previous media era.

facebook

On Facebook, I find that the connections are of the opposite nature: Most of my “friends” I really do know in offline life, but many understand my intellectual tastes less than my blog readers. But my Facebook friends nonetheless are in my social circle, so their links tend also to be obscure, risqué, ironic, or moving–in short, more interesting and enjoyable than any content the media companies used to dish up for me in the previous era. Ten years ago, for instance, I would probably never have seen this stunning Ukrainian artist perform the Nazi invasion of Ukraine with sand:

The things to note here are:

  1. My social curators also disassemble and reassemble the sources of content. They mix Jon Stewart clips (mainstream media, commercial) with homemade music ensembles (amateur, non-commercial) into one bespoke media flow.
  2. My online and offline friends have thus become what media editors used to be, and they are far better at it than their media-conglomerate predecessors ever were. I will never allow the old editors back into my life.
  3. It goes without saying that I “time-shift” and “place-shift”, which is just a highfalutin way of saying that I “consume” this content wherever and whenever (laptop + iPhone) I happen to be.

3) My intimate media

The final layer is what Paul Saffo in my Special Report called the “personal” media. These are media produced by family members and very intimate friends for defined and tiny audiences.

Example: baby pictures and clips on my private family web site. The site is protected and only grandparents and dear friends have access. The motivation is thus the opposite of the traditional media:

  1. The audience is deliberately kept small (whereas media companies want large audiences)
  2. The intent is to share and preserve personal memories.

Because the capture and sharing of such intimate media is so much easier than it ever was, I spend much, much more of my media time immersed in them. Where do I find this time? Easy. As Clay Shirky has been saying for years: We have a surplus of time, once we get rid of the crap in our lives.

Conclusion

So, to answer my three questions:

  • Does my 2006 thesis hold up? Yes, I believe it does. We all have the equivalent of many Gutenberg printing presses in our pockets and on our laps, and we use them to tell stories to one another as never before.
  • Would I refine it today? I would pay more attention to video and audio as opposed to text in the mix.
  • Is there a media “crisis”? No!

It is that last point that may come as a surprise. I am in an unusual position in that am both a professional and an amateur writer. So I must be aware that the news industry is dying, right?

I am indeed aware that it is shrinking. But is that a problem? There are indeed two crises:

  1. A money and profits crisis for owners of media capital.
  2. An employment crisis for journalists.

But those are two constituencies that the rest of society need not care about. For society as a whole, I believe there is no crisis, once we stop being hysterical and examine our media habits.

What I have discovered in my own personal media behavior is that I am today better informed than I have ever been before. But much of the information I consume no longer comes from journalists.

Instead, much, much more of it now comes from universities and think tanks in my RSS reader and iTunes University, from scientists and thinkers and other experts at conferences such as TED, and from you, who are a self-selected and thus qualified bunch of editors.

Speaking purely as a consumer of the media and a citizen, I believe that there is no media crisis–indeed, that we are entering a second Renaissance.

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Observation, satire or snark?

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson

Snooty, bitchy and arrogant? Or edgy, witty and incisive? In short, bad writing or good? That is the question.

That’s Cintra Wilson in the little mug shot above, and I would have absolutely no interest in, or knowledge of, her if she had not just re-inflamed some old kindling for all writers. Do not mistake this post as being about the content of the text I am about to refer to–I neither know nor care about fashion. In this post I care only about the issue of writer’s voice.

Background:

Cintra wrote a review in the New York Times of a J.C. Penney store that has opened in Manhattan. The review was, shall we say, scathing. Penney, she said, is a

dowdy Middle American entity

that, in essence, has no right to be on this island of skinny snobs. The clothing is full of polyester, the racks are full of sizes 10, 12 and 16, but not Cintra’s 2; and, perhaps most damningly, the store

has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen. They probably need special insulin-based epoxy injections just to make their limbs stay on.

Reaction:

Perhaps predictably, the country appears to have gone to war against Cintra. Bloggers are attacking her, for example herehere and here. Tenor: Cintra is an asshole; go shop at J.C. Penney just to spite her!

The New York Times, meanwhile, appears to have been receiving bags (gigabytes) of hate mail, decrying the newspaper’s

fat hatred, class bias and nasty humor.

The journalist, her editors, and the entire damn publication must be “smug”.

In response, Clark Hoyt, the Times‘ “public editor” or ombudsman (a bizarre and navel-gazing role, by the way) pens a characteristic mea culpa, oozing sudden humility on the newspaper’s behalf.

He does a great and succinct job of summarizing the eternal and underlying tension that is relevant for all writers when he asks:

What is the difference between edgy and objectionable? Or, as one reader … put it: How do writers “navigate the fine lines between observation, satire and snark.”

He even prompts the newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller, to say that

he wished it had not been published.

Wow. Cintra must be up there with Judith Miller and all those articles in the run-up to the Iraq War if she deserves editorial disavowal.

Cintra, meanwhile, has apologized on her blog and is back-peddling.

Exegesis:

So let’s contemplate Clark Hoyt’s question: How do we navigate that fine line?

Allow me to remind you that the publication that I happen to write for, The Economist, is accused of smugness on an hourly basis. And every time somebody calls us smug, somebody else is simultaneously calling us “refreshing” or “incisive” or something even more flattering.

Furthermore, I am right now trying to figure out just what my appropriate voice is in the book that I am writing.

So, just a few observations:

  1. Navigating that fine line is just one of the things that makes good writing so incredibly hard. Because yes, it really is hard, otherwise a lot more people would be doing it. So remember that, readers, when you write your angry (snarky!) hate mail to us journalists.
  2. Would you really–I mean really–prefer to shut up the Cintras out there, to sanitize them, to edit in the “on one hands” and “on the other hands”, to give 50% of the article to those who say that Iraq did have WMD and 50% to those who say it did not, because, you know, 50-50 is “balanced” and 10-90 might offend the heartland? You get my drift.
  3. Or would you prefer an authentic, damn-the-torpedoes, honest voice, one that tells it as its owner sees it and is prepared to explode with the torpedoes?
  4. Bill Keller: If you really do wish that Cintra’s piece had not been published, why did you not, as editor, nix it? Since you did not nix it, what the f*** are you doing now disavowing your writer?
  5. There is an easy way to address the reaction to pieces such as Cintra’s: Publish more pieces by other writers with an equally authentic but different voice. This would indeed be edifying for your readers. But do not dilute the copy that comes across your desk into the lukewarm bilge that would, at last, be the end of good writing.


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The Atlantic on the success of The Economist

Michael Hirschorn

Michael Hirschorn

Our success at The Economist continues to baffle and intrigue an entire industry.

Where some postulate that it is our tone (analogous to coffee beans “shat out be a civet cat“), others are analyzing our position as simultaneously niche and global, which is no longer oxymoronic but suddenly à la mode.

Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic is the latest. As he puts it,

The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor.

This is the American part of any article about us, which is always amusing, since there is a one-word synonym for the convoluted phrase “free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism”: That word is liberal.

But Hirschorn is really interested in why we are doing well when Time and Newsweek, which are trying to copy us, are not.

The easy lesson might be that quality wins out. The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.)

Here he is expressing what I’ve observed to be a persistent sour-grapes, cringing, squinting snobbishness toward The Economist from American journalists at the “good” publications: They always feel compelled to call us “smug”.

Indeed, he does:

At its worst, the writing can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses.

I don’t actually disagree. But Hirschorn then comes around to what I’ve been saying internally at The Economist for a while now:

The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey. Another word for this is blogging, or at least what blogging might be after it matures.

This of course leads to an irony that we at The Economist all savor:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy…. most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

As it happens, this missing “link love” was the topic of my presentation at our internal powwow last fall in Danesfield. The title of my talk was “Google Juice”. I was offering thoughts on how to increase our link love, but Hirschorn thinks that our relative dearth of it

turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. …

By that he means that we are really friggin’ expensive. He then signs off with an interesting thought:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

I like that. That’s exactly what I might try to do when my book comes out.

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The Economist: “shat out by a civet cat”

An amusing discussion on why The Economist does so well while other magazines are hurting: According to Tom Ascheim, the boss of Newsweek, it is because we:

  • are non-American and thus necessarily global in outlook,
  • have high subscription rates, and
  • snob appeal

But the fun is in this quote attributed to Vanity Fair writer Matt Pressman:

The Economist is like that exotic coffee that comes from beans that have been eaten and shat out undigested by an Indonesian civet cat, and Time and Newsweek are like Starbucks — millions of people enjoy them, but it’s not a point of pride.

Would that make me the shitting civet cat?

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A peek under the New Yorker’s kimono

newyorker-logo

For many sophisticated people, heaven is “an uninterrupted day or five to go through my … pile of The New Yorker magazines.” The publication has a special cachet: very different from–though no greater or less than–The Economist‘s, and indeed highly complementary. (We know from research that many coffee tables in many homes have both the New Yorker and The Economist on it.)

So I found myself fascinated by a rare lifting of the New Yorker’s kimono, as Dan Baum, a writer who got fired from the magazine, told his tale. (Thanks to Jag for pointing me to it.)

The first thing of interest is that Baum did this on Twitter. Yes, he tweeted his story in 140-character increments. If I may say so (redoubling my skepticism about Twitter), that part did not work. Twitter may be a great medium for some things, but not for storytelling. But Baum then consolidated the tweets here.

And what a very different culture the New Yorker‘s is from the one I live in at The Economist. First of all, the writers do not make a good living:

you’re not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there’s no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-Year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet.

Why do they put up with it? Apparently, because they are all convinced that

writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs.

This it may be. Certainly, the New Yorker’s writers can expect to rise to fame with their bylines and become stars, selling books and going on lecture tours. We at The Economist, of course, have no bylines. As a result, we ‘don’t do’ the star thing.

Another contrast: The offices of the New Yorker, according to Baum, are an eerie place where

Everybody whispers. It’s not exactly like being in a library; it’s more like being in a hospital room where somebody is dying. Like someone’s dying, and everybody feels a little guilty about it. There’s a weird tension to the place. If you raise your voice to normal level, heads pop up from cubicles.

That is not how I would describe the merrily eccentric and light-flooded Tower that serves as our head office in London. Is it the time the science correspondent came into the editorial meeting in drag, with nobody even batting an eyelid, that springs to mind? Or the time I had to duck as I passed a senior editor’s office to evade a flying object, dispatched with a scream that made the windows vibrate, only to hear the same editor invite me in with a cheerful and jovial demeanor, since he had just loosened up a bit and now felt envigorated?

The whole way they pitch stories at the New Yorker is one I do not recognize. They apparently write elaborate treatises just for the pitch, then wait to have it rejected or accepted. Baum even puts his successful and failed pitches up on his site. We on the other hand might casually mention or email a half-formed and tongue-in-cheek phrase (something that I might shout through a closing Tube door), and off we go. The other day I was skyping with my editor and said two words (“whither [name]”) under my breath. I just saw it on the official planning list.

But the most subtle and interesting bit in Baum’s account was the psychological tension between him and his editor, which he blames for his firing. They were discussing story ideas, and the writer knew more about his subject than the editor (which is inevitable). Baum thinks he made a mistake, because

I made him feel uninformed.

Granted: Baum got fired and is looking for reasons to apportion blame. But he is not slinging mud. This is the closest he gets to it.

In my twelve years, I cannot remember a single conversation at The Economist where one party felt threatened if the other ‘knew more’ about something. We thrive on talking to people who know more. How boring the obverse tends to be.

I am a fan of The New Yorker. It is a special place. So are we.

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Big night in London for The Economist

I just got an email from my colleague Ed Carr in London, who has been attending the gala dinner at an annual ceremony where they give out these swanky journalism awards. It appears that The Economist cleaned up tonight, with four awards. (The announcement is not up on the official site yet.)

Philip Coggan won, not one, but two! Fiammetta Rocco, our delightful books & arts editor, won another. (For a profile, as she just informed me in another email, of a subject “who caused me much amusement when I discovered that he uses a condom with 39 holes in it attached to the end of a Hoover to make his finest works of art.” Must investigate.) And the fourth award, I’m happy to say, appears to me mine.

Years ago, I won another one of those. For some reason, I never get to go to the dinner, though, so it is always Ed who accepts on my behalf. That means he gets his picture taken with the trophy. When I met my wife in Hong Kong and she googled me, she came upon that picture and, because he and I sort of look alike, forwarded it to her friends as a way of introducing her new boyfriend.

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Dear Economist; REALLY dear

A truly shocking notion: If your numbers are shrinking from one of your two revenue sources, raise prices for the other revenue source.

Not so shocking perhaps, but we’re talking about the magazine industry. A lot of magazines have been charging subscribers far less per issue than a Starbucks anything, and lowering that price in the hope of getting more subscribers and thus, in theory, higher advertising revenues.

Fast forward: Depression → Ads go poof. So what to do?

They’re suddenly paying attention to … us. As this piece says,

The Economist is leading the charge on expensive subscriptions, and its success is one reason publishers are rethinking their approaches. It is a news magazine with an extraordinarily high cover price – raised to $6.99 late last year – and subscription price, about $100 a year on average. Even though The Economist is relatively expensive, its circulation has increased sharply in the last four years. Subscriptions are up 60 percent since 2004, and newsstand sales have risen 50 percent, according to the audit bureau.

Will it work for others?

Let me tell you how I buy wines.

In normal circumstances, economists talk about something called the price elasticity of demand, because when something gets more expensive, people tend to buy less of of it. But there is a quirky exception. The demand for certain things has an inverse price elasticity. As the price goes up, you buy more of it.

This explains why I, occasionally capable of rationality, have nonetheless found myself reaching for the more expensive of two otherwise indistinguishable bottles of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. It must be …. better. How do I know? I don’t. The price led (fooled?) me into thinking it.

But: For this to work, the product must be something that is not fungible and that I value intrinsically. Having bad wine at my age is worse than no wine. Ditto my reading time: Reading crap is worse than not reading at all. By contrast, I would not reach for the more expensive of two otherwise indistinguishable rolls of toilet paper.

We may soon find out how the reading public views its news magazines.

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A generalist among generalists, I move on

A few of you have already noticed an unusual and almost personal rubric above my piece in the new issue of The Economist (the accompanying audio chat with Tim O’Reilly is here):

Our correspondent in Silicon Valley looks back before moving on to a new beat

So indulge me, please, as I say a few philosophical words about this idea of “moving on to a new beat”.

In a couple of weeks, I will indeed start writing about America’s West Coast generally–governance, economy, water and prisons, climate and immigration, Mexifornia and the Central Valley…. whatever strikes me as interesting. This will be my fourth beat in my twelve years at The Economist, for an average of three years in each beat. (And I do find it amusing that we journalists share the term beat with cops, hookers and drug dealers. There you go.)

As it happens, three years in a beat, give or take, is the unspoken and unwritten norm at The Economist. And isn’t that interesting? With a few notable exceptions that really prove the rule, we all move on every so often. I will go one step further: For over 160 years, our culture has been built upon moving on, thanks to an ingrained faith in generalism over specialization.

My former colleague Chris Anderson recently meditated on this tradition here. (I took over from Chris as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000, and Chris became editor of Wired Magazine soon after that.) Here, in Chris’s words, is roughly what happens to a journalist during a three-year period:

The first year after arriving to your new assignment was terrifying and exhilarating. It was a vertiginous learning curve, but you could ask dumb questions without fear and note that the emperor has no clothes.

In the second year, after the emperor had invited you in a few times to explain the subtle political dynamics that require him to go garbless for the ultimate good of the nation (but surely there were more important things to write about, such as his new elevated rail project), you would find yourself writing sophisticated analyses, traveling easily through the region, admiring your bulging rolodex and otherwise feeling very productive.

In the third year, you’d find yourself returning to stories with a certain cynicism and worldweary accounting of endless process. The elevated rail project has been delayed once again because of infighting within the opposition party. The emperor has no fiscal discipline. You understand everything all too well. It’s time to move on.

So let me offer a few stanzas in my own eulogy to generalism.

1) The avoidance of “capture”

What Chris described above is the subtle mechanism by which all sorts of professionals get “captured” by the wrong constituency.

To take a topical example, banking and insurance regulators get captured over time by the very bankers and insurers they are supposed to regulate, because they are going to fancy dinners with those types and their glamorous spouses, and not with the unglamorous account and policy holders who need regulators for protection.

I have never, personally, seen any journalist being unethical; instead, I see those journalists who consider themselves specialists being simply human. We all try to get close to our sources (politicians, CEOs, etc). And when we do get close to them, we tend to think of it as a scoop. We are flattered. Other journalists are jealous.

And lo, another specialist has been captured. Whom is such a journalist now visualizing as his audience when he or she sits down to write a piece? A reader who was not at the dinner/on the yacht/at the party? Nope. Although the specialist will deny it, he is now, ever so subtly, writing for the people he is supposed to be covering. After all, he needs to get invited back to more dinners/yachts/parties. He should have moved on long ago.

2) The freshness of fear

The wrong kind of fear leads to bad writing, as I have argued before, but the right kind of fear is a tonic for creativity. And believe me, a generalist knows fear. Taking a new beat is a terrifying experience. Each time I have done it, I felt as though I were stepping into a bee hive naked.

So you work extra-hard and you are always on edge (because, after all, you don’t know anything yet about the people you’re interviewing and the things you’re talking about).

And this is fantastic. You ask questions that make your interviewees gape. Bizarre questions, off-beat questions–questions that are either so illogical or so logical (as in obvious) that no specialist would ever dare ask them, even if he could conceive them to begin with. Now you know you’re in a good place!

3) New and unexpected associations

The generalist, if he is doing his job well, now makes unexpected lateral associations. As the specialists around him (still intimidatingly knowledgeable) stare at whatever fine print they’re staring at that week, the generalist connects things in other areas of life and the world and something new arises.

(This, by the way, is the definition of an idea or a thought: The brain does not create a new neuron; it hooks up existing neurons in a new synaptic pattern.)

4) Ability to “translate”

Specialists sooner or later start speaking the language of their specialization, to the point that they can no longer even tell that this language is foreign and must be translated.

While I was stationed in London, long ago, I was once sent off to Brussels to cover the European Union for three weeks. I showed up terrified and ignorant and wrote two good pieces in consecutive weeks. In the third week (week!) I felt excited because I thought that I now had a clue, and wrote a pompous article that mentioned a tension between the intergovernmental and supranational approaches to something or other. Everybody in Brussels uses those terms, and so I did too. My editor cut the piece to shreds, called me up and said ‘Thank God your three weeks are over. You’re coming home!”

Most specialists cannot talk intelligibly about their area of expertise. When they try to communicate with the rest of the world, it is a disaster. (The exceptions are rare, thus proving the rule, and easy to list: Paul Krugman in economics, Brian Greene in physics, Richard Dawkins in biology, etc.)

Coda: My three last beats and my book

In my own case, I now think I know why I did my past three beats (insurance, Asian business, technology) relatively well.

It was because I more than lacked expertise in each of these areas when I started: I was woefully, hopelessly and utterly unqualified! In 1997, I thought that insurance was unspeakably boring (which forced me to make it interesting.) In 2000, I thought that Asia was impossibly alien (which forced me to make it familiar). In 2003, I thought that technology was a curse on technophobes like me (which forced me to demystify and humanize it).

Put differently, all this was fantastic preparation for the book I’m now writing.

The idea is the result of a generalist’s lateral connections: A story about the ups and downs in all of our lives, told through historical characters.

Almost all of the characters in the book have their scholars and experts and specialists producing reams of expert biographies and histories at this very moment. My own qualification to write about any one of them amounts to zero.

A few of the publishers to whom I pitched the book idea noted this and asked, sensibly, ‘Why you, Andreas?’

I felt this was a very promising start.

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Rebecca, The Economist + The Sartorialist

The Sartorialist, not The Economist

+ Sartorialist, - Economist

I keep thinking about a young lady named Rebecca.

Rebecca was being interviewed in a short video at the beginning of a presentation at an event last week at Stanford University. The folks at the Knight Fellowship had teamed up with the Stanford Design School to explore cutting-edge future scenarios of journalism, and were staging a competition among three teams. Each team was to come up with one potential “next big thing” in media, to make a prototype, and then to present it to a panel of three judges. I was one of those judges.

So Rebecca appeared in that video at the start of the third presentation. She was, I think, an MBA student at Stanford, obviously super-bright and media-savvy, busy, ambitious, and all the rest of it. They asked her what her home page was. It was The Economist. So far so good.

She said a few more of the things that my colleagues and I tend to hear when people first discover that we work for The Economist. You know: global, intelligent, cosmopolitan, and things along those lines. Then Rebecca visibly got bored with her own bullshit.

So how much of The Economist do you actually read? her interviewer asked her.

Hardly anything, it turns out. And now Rebecca held forth: To be honest, she really only has The Economist as her home page because, well, that’s what one does in her circles. But she feels no connection to it at all. To her, the tone is that of some robot-like genteel alien preaching to her about what she should know for the next cocktail party. (As a good sport, I made sure that I was laughing and applauding loudest in the hall, for the record. Which was hard, because the hall suddenly seemed full of Rebeccas.)

Alright, continued the interviewer in the video, in that case, where does Rebecca go (if not, apparently, to her own home page)? She named a few sites. But the one she seems to “depend on” most, currently, is The Sartorialist.

And isn’t there a perfect symmetry to that? Officially The Economist, but really The Sartorialist. A site run by one man who

  • loves his subject–fashion in the world’s cosmopolitan cities
  • takes artful and intimate pictures
  • cares not a hoot about whether anybody agrees with his taste, and
  • is rewarded by a growing and steady following (largely from the same demographic as The Economist‘s) for precisely that authenticity.

On The Sartorialist site, Rebecca feels at home and intimate. On our site, she feels like a guest in some snobby show room, feeling (metaphorically) that she has to hold her pee until she finds a place where she is more comfortable asking for the bathroom.

So that’s what I’m thinking about. Here we are at The Economist–having powwows about the future, basking in our no-bylines eccentricities–while the Rebeccas out there politely keep us as their homepage, then bugger off to some other place that “gets” it. We would be foolish, and soulless, not to pay attention to Rebecca.

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