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The Burdens of Accountability

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Burdens of Accountability"

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You can put long articles on the internet. But Josh Tyrangiel, Managing Editor of Time.com says it doesn’t really work and he has a sensible explanation of why. If you look at the traffic statistics for any newsish website you’ll see that people are reading when they’re supposed to be at work. Which means they’re multitasking. Which means they want short items.

This reminds me that something I’ve come to understand in my years in the business is that probably the greatest privilege that writers for traditional magazines have is that nobody has any idea who’s reading them. Instead, they get to sort of operate with this mental image of things working very differently from the guy reading blogs instead of filling out his TPS Report. Maybe you’re relaxing in your easy chair, smoking a pipe, lovingly devouring each and every sentence of that 6,000 feature. Nice to think of your writing getting that kind of loving care from readers.

But if you think about how magazines actually work, it’s really not like that. I subscribe to The New Yorker because it’s a great magazine. But do I read every article that’s in every issue of the New Yorker? Of course not. In fact, some weeks I barely read any articles at all. And as best I can tell, the same is true of most New Yorker subscribers. And certainly almost nobody reads more than a trivial percentage of the content The New York Times puts out on any given day. But in print, nobody can really tell what’s being read or when or why or by whom. You just know that the gestalt is selling. Which gives editors and writers a lot of flexibility in terms of what they put into the gestalt. Which is fun because in my experience people get into writing and editing periodicals primarily because they enjoy doing it rather than because they’re genuinely interested in being responsible fiduciary agents of profit-maximizing shareholders.

On the web, there’s much less wiggle room and much less room for self-deception. You need readers who really and truly do click over to your site each and every day, not “subscribers” who may or may not be reading any given issue. And you know the—unflattering—truth about when they read you. Generally at work, and with intermittent attention.

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