Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The Future: When the Editors Hire the Publishers

JMMAt a bar last night, I was talking to someone smart who made an excellent point: that a very quiet, revolutionary act in the history of publishing had just taken place. (This person compared this moment to Gutenberg, which might be a little bit far afield but not that far off!) That is that Joshua Micah Marshall is hiring a publisher for Talking Points Memo, the blog he started all on his own in 2000, a bit before all the warbloggers like Jeff Jarvis and Glenn Reynolds came onto the Internet, and four years before Michelle Malkin. (Oh yes, how soon we forget.) My friend's point was: here is an editor, who built and owns his publication, who is now going to be the editor-owner, who will employ the publisher. For those of you who have worked at any sort of publication, the implications of this are staggering.

This publisher will be responsible for making the publication hum and grow. The first duty in the listing is "audience growth." This is what a publisher should do: ensure the ongoing financial success and growth of his or her publication. Instead, what we have now in the media industry are publishers who believe their duties include dictating the editorial mission on behalf of a business principle. This is when publishers go wrong and, generally, is when they should be taken out back and shot.

Except when the owner is the publisher, as is so often the case, she or he can never be dislodged, and rarely disobeyed. And even when the publisher isn't the owner outright, the publisher still represents those interests. And worse: the hybrid corporation/owner.

For instance, pretty much everything that is wrong with the Washington Post is driven by issues of ownership and control; the financial operation of the newspaper exercising control over editorial. (In this case, as so often happens, the executive editor of that paper, Marcus Brauchli, has some sort of weird, terrible, degrading Stockholm Syndrome relationship with the publisher-owner-corporation as well, and it is destroying the paper.)

Now that anyone can own a publication just by sweat equity, what will happen when the publishers actually report to the editor-owners? Yes, I am pretty much expecting a grand utopia, and perhaps I will be disappointed. But it's high time media publishing-where, nearly everywhere across the industry, the business side that has failed so utterly at its duties is currently squeezing every last bit of blood out of editorial-tried something different.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

Pity a slow girl for posing a dumb question..but isn't this what you've been doing here during the last 8 months? With brilliant success, I might add?

mathnet (#27)

Cho does boss them around though (or so they'd have us believe).

Meet me out back.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Good to know "at a bar" still has its place in the publishing paradigm though.

Steve (#1,777)

Good to know someone is trying to make sure "the publishing paradigm" still has a place in this world.

Abe Sauer (#148)

It is a sad day when I am anything's hope for a continued place in any world.

But there will be no one left to blame!

Moff (#28)

For a short time after our sincerely awesome managing editor bailed to take a much better job, the newsroom at the paper I used to work at was run by the publisher. That was an experience. Mostly, it involved him pacing back and forth, saying things like, "Hmmmm. I wish there were somebody here who could make that kind of call."

jfruh (#713)

Man, I remember when I started my first editorial job, and realized that "publisher", which meant "your big boss", always meant "somebody who rose up in the ranks from sales." It was disillusioning! And this was a We bsite, on the Internet. So, hooray for Josh Marshall, but surely in ye olde days of newspapers the editors originally hired the publishers too? I fear it won't take for the power structure to re-establish itself, around the time the founding writers/editors/bloggers/what have you of these online properties start retiring/dying.

LondonLee (#922)

Try working at a magazine where the editor-in-chief is also the publisher (as I do), it might sound like utopia but he never has time to do the first job properly which makes my life a fucking misery.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I did try that. My publisher and editor-in-chief writes stories (lots of them) and submits them to the news editor and then runs on and does his other things. I think that is related to my still having a job. The boss is too busy to fire people.

iplaudius (#1,066)

Or maybe newspapers are just one step behind universities?

Universities used to have royal patrons and ecclesiastical rulers who would control the curriculum (like publishers controlling editorial content).

In the next stage, the faculty (i.e., editors) came to control the university; patrons could no longer dictate who would be hired, what would be taught, and so forth (like Talking Points Memo now).

But as time goes on, universities need more and more money. Fundraising becomes more important. The university president is no longer just a member of the faculty with a leadership position. He is at best an intellectual figurehead who is really a gifted administrator. But, more and more, he is fundamentally a businessman and fundraiser.

You see where this is going?

Like Talking Points Memo with its publisher, the university charges the president to grow the business side of things. But the prerogatives of his office and the development-mission begin to shape the intellectual life of the university too much, to the extent that its focus, mission, and landscape are changed. What gets funding? How much? What is emphasized in teaching and research?

He who pays piper doesn't call the tune, not exactly, in the sense that donors can't pick faculty, and so forth. It's just that the exigencies of business often have unexpected and widespread effects on the organization.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Ssssh, you're not supposed to tell academics where their money comes from. And they actually know very well, but the good ones don't really believe it except while sitting through department meetings. (The bad ones never think about anything else, ever. See above, under taking people out and shooting them.) Journalists are not unlike that.

sailor (#396)

Good point, Choire, as usual. Doubt you'll be hiring a publisher once you take this to money land, however.

Ken Layne (#262)

Wait, so we are almost in UTOPIA?!

I guess, when I think about it, being an editor-owner is a lot more fun than working for people and worrying about getting fired. It is especially fun during the "months with money."

Awesome X (#602)

Was the placement of this above the baboons vs. bears post deliberate or just a happy coincidence?

advocatusdiaboli (#2,728)

But since both editors and publishers are owned, in the feudal sense as in beholden to for their livelihood, by the advertisers then this is really not a water shed event at all. Just one peasant assuming the chores of another in the service of their liege lord. And what do you think Fox News is anyway?

Ottoe (#2,832)

I hate Marty Peretz as much as the next blogger does, but it's worth pointing out that he's an editor-owner who, perhaps not coincidentally, JMM wrote for back in the day. So … just saying …

barnhouse (#1,326)

A GRAND UTOPIA yes let us accelerate our footsteps thither. I too believe, let me clarify. Not kidding. (Also, am a big admirer of TPM and read it every day without fail.)

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