Dispatches | November 17, 2010

Balance Scales

A couple of days ago on this blog, Rob Foreman posted an interesting meditation on how literary magazines use blogs and micro-publishing platforms like Twitter and Facebook. His discussion got me thinking about two specific issues raised by this development.

The first is the ever bothersome question of quality. I am not of the camp that holds that there is something inherent to the blog medium (or the e-book medium or wiki medium, etc., etc.) that reduces quality. As I’ve argued before, the technology has no necessary effect on the quality of the writing (at least not in this case), but the market and consumer culture created or facilitated by applications of that technology can have a pronounced effect — i.e., online writing doesn’t have to cater to short attention spans, but it often does because that’s a quality amenable to most of the current online reading audience, based on how they prefer to use the technology.

But what does this have to do with literary magazines in particular? Literary magazines, especially those whose origins lie in print, have a particular fixation on quality. Indeed, “quality” is often mentioned in the journal’s mission statement (as it is in ours: “Discovering the best in fiction, essays and poetry”). I’ve heard much fretting (here and elsewhere) over the idea of publishing some pieces only online, with the fear that the online-only pieces might be perceived as inferior, as being those which didn’t “make the cut” for the definitive print issue. Most magazines have a vested interest (ideological, institutional, and, indeed, commercial) in maintaining the association of their brand with the idea of “quality.”

But then, in the life of every magazine editor, comes the moment when they are told “And now you should have daily blog content of some kind.” And very quickly, as the pressures of meeting such a content production demand mount up, the staff begins to ask itself, “Do our blog posts need to meet the same standards of quality that we hold for our conventionally published material?”

As Rob points out in his post, the “blog post” has been developing as a genre unto itself, a nonfiction (usually) form distinct from either conventional journalism or “the essay” [but see Addendum below]. And as a form that’s still rapidly evolving its conventions, it’s very difficult to even decide what constitutes a “quality” blog post. What is the standard for success or excellence? Is it the amount of discussion it generates (in which case, polemical or controversial posts have the edge)? Is it the depth of analysis it brings (in which case longer and detailed posts are better, despite the conventional “short attention span” wisdom)? Is it the degree of engagement it creates with its community (in which case posts asking readers questions or reaching out for reader feedback are privileged)?

The answer, of course, is that it can be any of these things. Which is liberating, of course, but that freedom can also breed uncertainty. A blog maybe seems like a simple enough thing on the surface, but this fluidity and multiplicity of function and rhetorical purpose can suddenly become an almost paralyzing lack of structure for people who take writing (and their journal’s public image and voice) very seriously.

Of course, there are enough lively magazine-hosted blogs out there to prove that such paralysis can be overcome. But I do think that many a magazine staff still struggles a bit to conceptualize what their blog writing is for (and I’ve certainly read plenty of blogs that seem to exist just because someone somewhere said “You should have a blog” without any deep consideration of why and for what purpose). Indeed, because many blog posts are still so reminiscent of “the essay,” I think it can be harder to draw a distinction between what a blog post does versus what an essay in the magazine would do, leading right back to the crisis of “is this piece good enough for us to ‘publish’?”

In some ways, then, micro-publishing is less of a challenge to magazines, because there’s little danger of anyone confusing a Tweet or status update with a conventional essay. But, as with blogs, I think it can be somewhat difficult for magazine staff to shift their conceptual gears from the traditional purpose of “publishing” to the more interaction-oriented needs of the social media marketscape.

I’m sure we’ll all get the hang of it in time; I’m not pessimistic about this. I just find it fascinating that journals who have been so accustomed to publishing and promoting short-form work can face more difficulty in adopting these new forms of publication than some other fields.

Oh, and I promised discussion of a second issue. This one I will only gesture to in passing, and that’s the issue of compensation. I don’t think there’s a crisis here yet, and many magazines do arrange special compensation for blog post contributors. But I do think we should keep an eye on how practices develop in this regard. As Rob mentions, it’s becoming an assumption now that staff members will contribute to a magazine’s blog and participate in discussions that happen there and on Twitter and Facebook. Sometimes, this new job responsibility is added to all the other responsibilities without necessarily increasing staff compensation.

For people who hold staff positions, this kind of “mission creep” may just come with the territory — it’s probably not a major problem. But I think there should be some concern about using students and interns as cheap or immediate sources of online content. There is a potential for exploitation there that we should simply be aware of. Again, I haven’t seen this as a significant problem yet in the real world, but I think that it’s a concern that should be on the industry’s radar.

Addendum on the term “blog”: I’d just like to note that I’ve used the term “blog post” here somewhat against my own preferred practice. Normally, I’d try to distinguish the medium from the message. That is, anything posted on a blog is a “blog post.” That could, in fact, be an essay or a poem or a piece of hard journalism, etc. In purist’s terms, a “blog” is a publishing technology, not a genre of writing. That said, Rob is certainly right that there is a genre developing which we have generally given the label “blog.” I think this is problematic (I’ve had arguments with people about claims like “Blogs aren’t ‘real’ journalism” — “real” journalism can certainly be published via a blog as much as it can be published on newsprint or via broadcast; but the person using “blogs” in this context isn’t talking about a technology, they’re talking about a genre, albeit an ill-defined one), but the genre does need to be acknowledged in some way. And hence I have followed Rob in contrasting “blogs” with “essays,” though I would like to attach this caveat to that.

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