Paleobibliophilic Bookservative Gutenbourgeois

Culture workers and hardboiled journalists who invoke the name of Johannes Gutenberg as if they had him as their editor or faculty adviser in graduate school? Paul Ford, a novelist, commentator who also designs the web site and former editor at Harper’s Magazine, has a name for them: the Gutenbourgeois:

They believe in the cultural primacy of writers and editors and they feel good—even a bit superior—about working in publishing. They believe it is their job to drive culture forward. The web, they are a little proud to admit, confuses them. They say: “We gave away all those short stories on our website but it sold no books.” Or: “We built a promo site for our famous author who does the crime novels and it was just a total boondoggle with no traffic.” Or: “The magazine can’t get enough pageviews, even after we hired the famous blogger. Now management wants to make people pay for access.”

“Look,” I say, “maybe you’re doing it wrong.”

“But,” they say, “we tweet.”

In the rest of his post (which is rewarding reading), Ford goes on to elaborate a central issue bedeviling the media: what he calls the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” problem, or WWIC. The people formerly known as the audience have ideas and opinions—and they always have. Authors, publishers, and newspapers not only want to be silos, but temples; traditionally excelling at finding and curating content, they’ve proven less capable of managing the conversational medium that is the true heart of the public sphere.

A great example of WWIC-avoidance? we need look no further than Ford’s [former] employer, Harper’s publisher John D. Macarthur, who blames scribal poverty on the web’s blurring of divisions between author and audience:

Similarly, writers and editors, as Harper’s Magazine’s Thomas Frank points out, are being driven into penury by Internet wages — in most cases, no wages. But, as Lawrence Summers once said to me about Mexicans, Americans are free to “choose” to work in “content mills,” the editorial equivalent of Mexican maquilladoras, where they can earn $15 for writing 300 words. The result of this “free choice” is what Leon Wieseltier calls the “proletarianization of the writer,” although what he describes as their “indecent poverty” has yet to turn them radical.

“Content mills” like Demand Media and its ilk (subject of a recent column by Thomas Frank in Harper’scaveat lector, that link might not work) are odious to be sure. But they’re a far cry from maquiladoras. And penury has long been the lot of the ink-stained wretch; I recommend George Gissing’s New Grub Street to any lugubrious Gutenbourgeois who thinks previous generations of scribblers had it any better. Macarthur doesn’t need to grok the Internet; he “experienced a surfeit of computer messaging while working on the foreign desk of United Press International in 1982.” When it comes to the advent of the Web, the mainstream-media corollary to WWIC is “Why Weren’t We Consulted?”: why didn’t anybody ask us how to set up this whole Internet thing?

Gutenbourgeois discontent is on the rise; it’s a special case of the ideology Tim Carmody calls bookservative (now there’s a link that works). But it’s possible for a historic magazine to pivot with the changes of the new public sphere: America’s other general-interest monthly, The Atlantic, has posted its first profit in years, thanks to a strategy that combines blogging, engaging online features, social media, and a bracing conference series with the delivery of a tasty chunk of wood pulp every month.

[post updated; see comments for details]

6 comments

  1. Paul Ford used to be an editor at Harper’s; he (I) left some time ago.

  2. Sorry about that—both Harper’s masthead and ftrain list the affiliation as current.

  3. Ah, I see. On the masthead, “Contributing Editor” means a friend and freelancer (I’m both), rather than a full-time editor or fact checker.

  4. I get the contributing editor designation; ftrain links to a page at Harpers.com describing you as the designer and coder of the web site.

  5. Ah, someone should update that.

  6. I would venture that Atlantic posts a profit because it’s content gears toward subject matter like this–http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2011/01/hard-core/8327/ and this–http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2011/01/snls-jim-carrey-episode-5-funniest-moments/69154/

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