TW Author Interview by William Gray
Megan Garber is a fast-talking, faster-thinking writer in the middle of the whirlwind called “the future of journalism.” An assistant editor at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Megan has been a staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review and a finalist for a Mirror Award in media coverage. She loves her field and writes about what’s transforming media today.
I spoke with Megan this February. Every statement of hers pulled five new questions from this interviewer, conjuring more trains of thought.
In particular, we discussed Gawker’s recent redesign, in which the infamous Manhattan gossip blog and its associated branches—Gawker Media’s network of blogs includes Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Jezebel—is bidding for new respectability as a news site.
Of the future of print, Megan likens it to the continued interest in fountain pens:
Print will stay around as sort of a luxury commodity item—a luxury people happily purchase because of its aesthetic presence and cachet.”
TW: What is the future of the written word?
MG: The future of the written word is very, very bright. But increasingly, things that don’t need to be written textually won’t be. Because of the physical constraints of the traditional newspaper, even stories that could have been told through images or video were told with text. We’re losing that limitation. If there is a narrative I’m trying to tell that makes sense as a bullet-pointed list, I have total freedom to do that. In a newspaper, that would be weird; it would look strange.
I think there is a future for beautifully crafted narrative. But I’m not going to tell a story as a long, magazine-length piece if it doesn’t make sense to do that.
TW: Then is technology driving storytelling?
MG: We are still in such early days when it comes to the Internet. It’s easy to forget, because the Internet has grown so exponentially over the past few years. But, really, it’s a teenager, and it has the angst and dreams and everything else associated with that.
Everything’s an experiment, everything’s subject to change, and I think that’s intimidating and empowering. Technology does drive narrative, it delivers it, it encapsulates it. But the big caveat is that it only sort of controls it in the ways we allow it to. We have the open Web, tablets like the iPad, Facebook feeds, the Twitter stream. It becomes a matter of choosing which we’re going to use to tell our stories.
TW: This was brought up in another interview, but with access to everything on the Internet, what about “proper media consumption”?
MG: Journalists have always been able to dictate what proper consumption is: Along with Britney Spears, you better consume Big Pharma policy. That was the bundle mechanism presented every day: When you read about x, you will read about y. We all sort of assumed there’s something implicitly good about catholic consumption of news—that diversity itself has value.
What the Web is showing is that this might not be the case. There’s a tension between personal interests and communal interests, and the Web is laying bare that tension. News used to be much more monolithic, and now it’s page views and ways of measuring consumer interests. We’re now able to say, “Wow, look at the page views of Britney Spears versus that long investigation about x.” There’s something about the huge difference between those counts that’s very upsetting. Do we need people to be omnivorous consumers of news, or is it viable to let consumers dictate their own level of news?
Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion was talking about these ideas way back in the twentieth century: There’s no reason to make people consume news they’re not interested in. I don’t have an answer about how things are or should be, but we are seeing that tension.
TW: What about Gawker and its redesign?
MG: It’s more controversial than I thought it would be. People get used to websites looking one particular way. There’s something very intuitive about Web design, so any change, basically, is going to be controversial from that perspective. I think Gawker from the earliest days has been a blog, with the design and formatting of a blog. Nick Denton’s idea was to change that concept. [Denton is Gawker’s editor and founder-owner.] It’s no longer a blog; it’s now a news site, and he wants to compete with other news sites.
TW: And how does the new design impact story delivery?
MG: The most striking impact is the [front-page] image. [Click here for the latest example.] It’s about collapsing mediums and trying to make the online world a bit more TV-like. I don’t know if it’ll work, but that’s the goal. The main focus is the image, and all the textual content has to relate the image on that page. Gawker has always been known for its sharp text, but at least design-wise, the writing now has to compete with the image.
The whole Chris Lee (R-NY) thing broke as they rolled out the new design, and that’s a showcase. It puts more pressure on Gawker writers to come up with individually meaningful stories that deserve the billing they’re given with the design. [In early February, the married Republican congressman resigned after Gawker revealed he’d been looking for dates on Craigslist.]
There is a way to keep everything people know and love and sometimes don’t love in the stories—the snarkiness, the wit, and the smartness. I don’t see that being compromised in the design. I do see story selection itself being compromised. Each story has more weight on it to be a story in a traditional journalistic sense.
TW: We’ve talked about Gawker as a blog site. How does the transition to a news site take place?
MG: In some ways, Gawker is a model, and that’s why there’s been so much focus on what they do. But they are also a unique instance. They’ve built up this unique brand with particular writers—you can even say they created this particular style of writing. What we are finding is that the Web accommodates all kinds of writing. It’s what’s great about it and constraining about it. There’s an appetite for fully formed features and all the other types of narratives. I don’t know how much it heralds a renaissance, but it indicates that there’s the ability to fulfill the needs of every kind of buyer.
TW: What about the long-form series? We saw the Washington Post Pentagon series released online. Is there a place for newspaper series anymore?
MG: The series is the broccoli that’s snuck in along with spaghetti. I wish I had a more optimistic answer, but whether long-form investigations have their own niche audience—I just don’t know. We have studies about how crucial that stuff is to democracy, but it can also be painfully boring stuff. I don’t know if I would buy a publication on its own that was only long-form investigative journalism.
TW: But there are some niche magazines. What about the Economist?
MG: I think of the Economist as a very smart, printed blog. So much of what they do—much of it is reported—is akin to what the best bloggers do, such as Ezra Klein. Blogs and the Economist are more like each other than the Economist and Pew [the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press] or The Center for Public Integrity. So it comes down to length and tone and wit—which the writing that comes out of investigative outfits isn’t known for. It becomes more compelling to read a piece when it’s opinionated.
TW: We’re seeing experimentation on the Internet, because the medium can handle it. Where’s print when it comes to experimentation?
MG: Print will stay around as sort of a luxury commodity item—a luxury people happily purchase because of its aesthetic presence and cachet. We’ve seen examples like that: The fountain pen as a mass commodity goes away, yet we still have luxury purveyors who decided to double down on the idea that their good is a luxury item.
I don’t want to say that it doesn’t matter to the human resource infrastructure of the news organization. But to me the New York Times is not a newspaper and a website and a Tumblr link and a Twitter feed—it’s simply the New York Times. It’s hard to split them up.
TW: Is there still concern about how to fund journalism and newspapers?
MG: There’s a lot of concern, still, about payment. The question is: How will the important, public-interest journalism be paid for? I haven’t heard that conversation get any less urgent. Maybe, yes, we’re talking about WikiLeaks and other ideas. But if it’s occurring at a lower volume, I think it’s because we’ve all realized we’re going to answer that question by experimenting, starting new business models.
TW: Do you think we’ve hit the point where we can’t cut journalists from staff anymore?
MG: In the past, the reporter could dedicate resources—time, research—for months on an individual blockbuster story. They could do that because it was supported by ads in the travel section. But now that story has to speak for itself on the Web, and to justify itself as no longer part of a bundle. It has to exist on its own terms.
All the effort and resources that go into reporting the blockbuster story does not work anymore as a purely economic proposition. It’s not just a matter of reaching a tipping point when it comes to employees. It becomes a matter of what is the new system going to be.
TW: All this talk about experimentation brings to mind Boston.com’s Big Picture, which has now become the Atlantic’s In Focus news photography blog. Where do these fit?
MG: Looking at the economics, images are quicker to produce and to consume—it takes a lot less time to look at a picture than to read 1,000 words. There’s an efficiency to images and a way that we can exploit them now that we couldn’t before. I think we’re going to see more images and, unfortunately, more slide shows, and we’re going to see more video. I think we’re also going to see more experiments with text.
TW: At the major national newspapers—New York Times, Washington Post—are we seeing efficiency take over journalism?
MG: Yes and no. I know as a consumer I don’t want to feel like my time is wasted. I have a very good sense of what my time is worth, and I resent when a story is 2,000 words and it really only needed 500. But I think the Web is expanding possibilities in the packaging of narrative as much as in producing it. The New York Times doesn’t have to decide between a chart, a graphic, a slide show, and a 5,000-word story—it can do all that. The efficiency comes in how many resources the New York Times is willing to dedicate to all this rather than to the attention span of the audience.
TW: Will the tablet spur media forward, as with Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily?
MG: We forget sometimes how closed tablets are. They provide an immersive experience, but it’s very hard to link to a story on The Daily or to tweet it. There are so many elements on the Web that are separate platforms, but publishers get so excited about tablets because they are closed platforms. Publishers control all the content that’s there.
Fundamentally, news is moving in a more discursive direction. I think what people love about news is that they can share and discuss it, and that’s why they love Facebook and Twitter. I’m a bit less optimistic about the future of the tablets. There’s going to be a backlash: People aren’t going to want a walled garden; people will want to share things.
TW: Is there a future for books?
MG: I think there is. In the future, reading will become more interactive, with readers highlighting passages and sharing them with friends. That will drive digital consumption [of e-books]. In terms of print books, just like with magazines and newspapers, they’re going to be luxury items. They will be things people like to have on their bookshelves and to treasure, and they’ll be more of a niche product. With every new development, no platform is fully displaced. Even things like the pamphlet are still around.
‘It just feels inevitable,’ Denton says. ‘We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops….’
It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like attitude toward ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption—zeitgeist, if you will—than about simple CPMs.”
— from “Nick Denton on Gawker’s New Redesign” by Megan Garber