The New Yorker is special. I grew up with it around and was a subscriber until about a year ago; lots of my friends and family are addicts. There’s a sense that if you make it through the magazine every week you’re up to speed on a sort of bare minimum of intellectual life. (I have one friend who literally reads every issue cover to cover, and so is over a year behind. Right how he’s probably reading an issue from early 2012.) You don’t have to devote hours a week to following the news because The New Yorker will filter it all for you and provide smart analysis, packaged alongside cultural coverage and fiction.
So NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson’s explanation of the brand’s recent success online made sense to me:
The Internet wants to read smart takes on what’s in the news right now.
Let the news addicts wade through every break in every story. The New Yorker will figure out what’s important and give you something intelligent to chew on. They’re just doing it more often and a bit quicker in recognition of the way the web operates.
But will it work?
Someone pointed out on Twitter that this is basically The Atlantic’s online strategy, and it’s worked very well there. I’m optimistic about both publications’ odds, given such strong brands. But if I were in charge of either, the competitor I’d be watching most closely is Medium.
While I and many others like to read smart news analysis online, it doesn’t all need to come from professional journalists. In venture capital, which I cover, it’s the VC’s who frequently write the best analysis. In economics, it’s often tenured professors whose blogs are indispensable. And so the idea of aggregating smart writing from a diverse contributor base is a powerful one. That’s what Medium is doing, combining a beautiful writing tool with the network of Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone to great effect.
Here’s how Williams recently described the project:
“The magazine is the analog for what we’re doing.” … “We’re not focused on news,” he said. “We’re focused on ideas and stories that have a longer shelf life, [whether it's] short opinion pieces or long-form investigative journalism. We want that to thrive.”
Remember that with this model, not every post on Medium has to be New Yorker quality. The publish then filter model allows you to get a lot of solid contributors on board, writing mostly for free, then filter out the occasionally great stuff and push it out.
I buy that there’s room for a slower, more considered publication to thrive online, purposely contrasting itself to the cacophony of online news. But I have real doubts about it as a business. Amateurs will never fully replace pros – there are many indispensable VC and economics reporters – but there will be some crowding out. The New Yorker may survive on the strength of its brand and the superiority of its writers, but any publication that pursues the same strategy will have to compete – and indeed already is competing – against the amateurization of “smart take.”