Better no wine writers than flacks
There was a terrific article in yesterday’s NY Times Magazine that I commend to everyone who has any interest in publishing, wine writing and social media. It’s as good a capsule description of where we are now as anything I’ve seen.
The author, Andrew Rice, covers a lot of territory. Basically, these are his chief points:
– Writers who worked for print publications are getting laid off, and seeking new opportunities, mainly online.
– Unfortunately, online pubs have not yet figured out a revenue stream, so these writers are either unpaid, or paid peanuts.
– Thus, while it’s true that online sites have done a good job destroying traditional print media, they’ve done a terrible job creating viable alternatives to it.
– One model that shows promise is “a commune of bloggers” wherein many bloggers pool their talents into a single online site, hoping their collective weight will attract eyeballs. (Think Huffington Post.) But making money still remains a formidable challenge.
– Two other models, subscriptions and premium memberships, are being tinkered with, so far with unproved results.
All these things, we already know, having covered this for years. But then, towards the end of the article, Rice gets into a territory that troubles me, and should trouble you, very much: “blurring the division between reporting and advertising.” In this model, a blog posting would “let advertisers…produce content that, while labeled, is blended into the rest of the site.” In other words, independent reporting would have, squeezed into its crevices like caulking in a windowpane, advertiser-created content, of which the reader might be entirely unaware. It would be as if I told you I was enjoying a cold, refeshing bottle of Coca Cola while writing these words.
Disclosure: Heimoff was paid by Coca Cola to produce this image.
Rice has enough sound journalistic sense to state that “Not long ago, such an idea would have been considered heretical, and in many newsrooms, it still is.” But then, he quotes somebody named Merrill Brown, described as “a veteran media executive and investor” who is entrepreneurially “building a network of local news sites.” “Hopefully we’re breaking down the silliness of how church and state was historically implemented,” Mr. Brown says. Times are so tough for writers, Brown implies, that they need to get over their holier-than-thou ideological purity and take the money, no matter what they have to do to get it. Or, as Rice puts it, “The recession has, through fear and necessity, made capitalists out of everyone.” Even those once-gnarled, hard-bitten wretches, reporters.
Incidentally, the reason I smell so squeaky clean is because I just showered with Dial Soap.
Disclosure: Heimoff was paid to mention “Dial Soap” in this blog
To me, the firewall between church and state — between the editorial and advertising sides of a publication — is sacrosanct. I can’t imagine being unbiased without that firewall existing. Look, I’m not an idiot. I understand that some 80% of a publication’s revenues come from advertising, not subscriptions. I know that Wine Enthusiast’s advertisers pay my bills. I try to respect the firewall, while not being needlessly antagonistic to anyone, advertisers included. That doesn’t mean an advertiser won’t get a lousy score, if I feel the wine deserves it, and the management of Wine Enthusiast has been very good about not reproaching me for reproaching advertisers’ bad wines.
By the way, I couldn’t have completed today’s post without the help of my friend, Xanax.
Disclosure: Heimoff was paid by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals to include this reference to Xanax.
Surely we can all agree this is the only model that makes sense. Can’t we? Would you find credible an alcoholic beverage magazine where there was functionally no difference between editorial and advertising? If you would, I have a subscription to The Tasting Panel I’d like to sell you. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a writer to write well with the right hand while the left hand is indulging in an orgy of product placement. Writing is a fungible skill, and in that sense, it is an amoral act. The writer can apply his skills in any direction, just as a printer can work for the U.S. Treasury or as a counterfeiter.
Say, have you seen the new Robin Hood? Fantastic movie! Check it out!
This space paid for by Universal Pictures
What I am saying is how profoundly uncomfortable I am to be watching this Brave New World plunge us into a new reality defined by advertisers, for advertisers, and confused by consumers as reality. It may be better to have no writers at all than to have writers who, through sheer economic desperation, sink into flackdom.