The Climate of Content

by GLEN MARTIN

Some of the best longform essay writing of late has been published since November last year. Take Lauren Duca’s piece on the gaslighting of America, or this from Hua Hsu on early cut on normalisation. For local flavour, try this magnificent piece from the Monthly by Richard Cooke. And David Remnick posted this breathtaking work at around 11pm Australia AEST (5am in New York) on the night of the American presidential election. Writers work fast in the internet age but, to create something this reasonable yet impassioned and cutting on a day like that, is something else. It’s a good time for readers.

Illustration by Zach Graham

Illustration by Zach Graham

But I’d argue that it’s not such a great time for writers, especially for those whose trade is non-fiction. These writers have long been under siege, attacked by technological disruption and feckless business decisions made in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. In times like these, of layered turmoil and ongoing intrigue, we make sense of the world through considered, researched, thoughtful writing. But this kind of writing is endangered.

The media climate and hunger for information asks for something, anything, to fill the churn of modern consumption, and has fast established a process that runs counter to what good writing requires. Instead of time, resources to report, to travel, to view and interview and ponder and rethink and draft (and edit! And sub-edit!!), writers are being asked to produce more for less, with less. Where once an editor wanted reporting and analysis, they now demand content.

In his remembrance of late American journalist Jimmy Breslin published in the New Yorker earlier this year, Jonathan Sadler wrote that “journalism is in transition, skewed by a digital business model in which talk is cheap and reporting is expensive.”

This is nothing new, of course, but it’s worth considering in great detail. Of the many pieces written post election, several have commented upon the reliance of news organisations on data journalism and how the numbers missed the oncoming orange tsunami because papers cut expensive field reporters as data scribes can monitor and predict from a centralised location. Writing is expensive.

Illustration by Miguel Porlan

Illustration by Miguel Porlan

The very process and value of writing itself is on the line due to that expense. When Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher and chairman of the New York Times group, was collecting plaudits for embracing the digital shift in the late 1990’s and making everything in the newspaper available at no cost, online, his and the other major dailies and monthlys set a precedent which we now reap the diminishing returns of. When the Times introduced a paywall in 2011 it was too late, not only for the newspaper industry but for any action that fought the devaluation of writing nonfiction in major publications. You can get this stuff for free now. Why pay? There’ll always be another story.

Newspapers and magazines are where so many of us who write, where the great and the good and the rest get to practise in front of an audience. Great novelists and trashy hacks alike get to the nub of what writing is about - telling stories, engaging and explaining, opening up the world - in these outlets. To have that relationship devalued by the cut-throat metrics pioneered by Nick Denton’s ‘Big Board’ at Gawker does writers and readers alike no good.

The problem therefore is not an absence of great writing in the content-at-all-costs age, but the business circumstances that drive the various written industries preferring the quick fix or the hot take so much so that the long researched, carefully considered article will fall away. And as a result we all become a little more stupid, and a little more susceptible.

However, there appears to be a great desire for good, well researched, thoroughly reported writing at present. Audiences are buying subscriptions and going beyond the sometimes suspect sites found in their Facebook feeds to a seek greater understanding of what is happening. This desire of the reader to understand these vast shifts in the political and social landscape and the work these conditions inspire is re-establishing a role for the writer as an investigator, researcher and mirror to the moment. This gives all of us writers a reason to hope and consider what could work next.

So new models of entrepreneurial practice are required. The generally solitary process of assembling a piece of writing might not always suggest the most social class of citizen, but now is a good time to get together. To come to a festival, of emerging writers in Canberra perhaps, and consider starting something.

Something small to begin, something worth paying for. The audience exists, but the sad shells of our major publications are increasingly unable to address it.


Glen Martin is a PhD Candidate at the ANU Centre for Art Theory and Art History, a professional Communications expert and a freelance writer who has contributed essays, journalism and fiction to publications such as Australian Art Monthly, BMA, Going Down Swinging, Creative, Homer, Vive and more. He writes for and sings in the rock band Waterford and live in Canberra.