I don’t remember the exact moment I discovered the existence of global culture magazine Monocle. But recently I bought a copy. (So sue me, I like luxury.) Tracing my progress toward that decision is interesting.
Last week I started a project about modern cities. The magazine’s radio station Monocle 24 has a show called The Urbanist, which I knew because Jessica Bridger mentioned contributing on her website. I listened and liked it.
I sampled some of their other podcasts. Enjoyed them.
I downloaded the Monocle 24 app, which alternates trendy multi-continent music shows with various talk segments. (The music lineup is slightly more repetitive than I’d prefer.)
I thought, “If I like the audio this much, maybe I would like the magazine too.”
I searched the web for other articles about Tyler Brûlé (found and read: 1, 2, 3, 4).
I wrestled with Monocle’s ecommerce interface.
I wanted the magazine enough that I tried again.
Success! Received this email:
By the way, the cost wasn’t negligible: £6 copy + £16.75 shipping = $35 (roughly). If I had realized how expensive shipping would be before sending the purchase through, I would have found another way to get the magazine. I think Pegasus Books carries it…
If the magazine is pleasurable enough, I will probably subscribe. That’s $150+ dollars per year. Not nothing!
“I’ve examined what happens to audiences — that is, we ordinary people — in a world of unprecedented media choice: we begin to select our reality according to our biases, and we interpret evidence (such as photos and videos) and solicit expertise in a way that pleases us.” So writes Farhad Manjoo in his book True Enough, which documents how the internet has eroded the standards for informational accuracy.
Using case studies from the news, Manjoo points to selection bias, perception bias, and lack of context as factors influencing the public’s persistent wrongness about some issues, especially politics. He overviews convincing research and explains that if you interpreted things based on first impressions, you would frequently misunderstand complex events. Which is exactly what happens! We listen to an ostensible expert’s credentials, respond to their personal charisma or lack of it, and decide whether to believe them over the other guy based on nothing more than charm.
The problem is, you can’t know what you don’t know. (Thanks, Rumsfeld.) If you’re not an expert in a certain field, you can’t tell who’s a real authority and who is inflating their own importance and credibility.
What’s ironic is that I believe Manjoo’s assessment of this whole situation — not because I’ve independently combed through the documents and consulted other authorities on the topics at hand. I believe him because he writes well, his ideas appeal to common sense, and he’s a columnist for The New York Times. The back of the book carries praise from another journalist and an academic, whose opinions I also did not independently verify.
I find Manjoo’s work compelling for exactly the reasons he cites as being behind many scandals, conspiracies, and other misconceptions.
Australian journalist Andrew McMillen has a weekly newsletter called Dispatches, which I subscribe to. I can’t remember why I signed up, but I assume it was because McMillen wrote a good story and the link was at the bottom.
Dispatches suggests long-form articles about a wide variety of topics. For example, one of my favorite installments features fascinating stories about how terrifying “pet” chimps are. McMillen also regularly enthuses about music and podcasts. Arguably the newsletter has something for everyone.
I don’t usually listen to podcasts, but I like McMillen so I tried the inaugural episode of his new venture. Penmanship is a podcast about Australian writers and other publishing-industry professionals. In the first episode, McMillen interviews Trent Dalton, an acclaimed journalist who is suuuper hesitant about defining himself as a writer, even though the word “writer” is part of his email signature (lol). If you’re a meta-media enthusiast like me, the story of Dalton’s career and his thoughts on magazine-creation are quite interesting.
However… the episode is too long. One hour and forty minutes is a lot of time to expect from a random stranger. If I didn’t feel a personal connection to Andrew McMillen — thank you for responding to my emails! — I never would have tried this podcast. But I’m not a podcast aficionado, so my opinion doesn’t carry much weight. Pete D’Alessandro, producer of the podcast 2 Degrees of Alie, writes on Mic, “If I’m selecting which podcast to listen to next and yours is two hours, I’m gonna have to get back to it.” Limiting yourself to forty-five minutes “roughly triples” the chance that he’ll tune in.
I think the kind of interview that works for a text story is very different from the kind of interview that works for audio. When you’re writing an article, you want to let the interviewee ramble freely, because that increases the likelihood of fascinating tangents and pithy quotes. When you’re recording an article (so to speak), you want the answers to be succinct and punchy, unless you plan to edit heavily later.
In my view, the interview with Trent Dalton would make a better listening experience if A) it was shorter and B) it had a narrower focus. Instead of overviewing Dalton’s entire work history, the episode could have focused on his time at the magazine QWeekend or his experiences interviewing celebrities. The scope was perhaps broader than it needed to be.
All that said, I enjoyed Penmanship, and I plan to listen to future episodes. In fact, I’m hesitant about posting this review, because I don’t want to discourage a project that I think will be really cool. Any new endeavor involves a learning curve, so I expect each new episode of Penmanship to be better than the last. (No pressure, right?)
Over email I asked McMillen what he plans to tweak going forward, now that he’s finished the first episode. McMillen answered, “I’m brand-new at podcasting and keen to get better. I’ve got three other interviews recorded, and I’m very happy with the contents of each, but I know that I need to improve my ‘radio voice’ by loosening up in front of the mic when recording my intros and outros. That’s my goal for now: becoming more comfortable as a host, rather than just a guy reading a script into a mic, which is basically my role in that first episode.”
How to fund online journalism? For the most part, the conversation has focused on advertising. Hampton Stephens, founder of the self-sustaining World Politics Review, finds this puzzling. He cautions websites backed by venture capital, like BuzzFeed and Vox:
“The lesson that most media startups seem to have taken from the evisceration of advertising-supported journalism over the past two decades is that more innovation is needed… in advertising. […] To ensure the kind of ‘accountability journalism’ that is critical for any democracy to flourish, well-funded new media players must experiment with models other than advertising.”
Apparently everyone wants to copy the free metropolitan weeklies stuffed with “medical” marijuana enthusiasts. (No offense meant, East Bay Express.) A few high-end legacy newspapers—and premium newcomers like Stephens’ World Politics Review—have made subscription systems work, but only up to a point. The signups are slowing down. So… that’s it. Alternatives are strangely infrequently discussed, despite the occasional hat tip to research divisions.
Here’s the problem: Advertising works reasonably well when a website is deluged by traffic, but what about smaller operations? Are niche editorial websites doomed, or are they thriving? The general trend can be difficult to track, but journalistic endeavors of all sizes are trying to guess how they will be funded in a mobile-first world populated by Millennials who balk at paying for information.
Julia Turner wrote of “opinion journalism” that “the challenge is a glorious one: to come up with useful ways to understand the world, and to convey those to readers in a way they’ll find engaging.” Turner’s glorious challenge is the goal of any kind of public communication. One of the best methods is to include people in the process of gathering and interpreting information. This is what Melody Kramer does, and it is a delight!
Kramer has an email newsletter (gif warning) that she uses in part to workshop ideas. Recently, exploring participation and membership, Kramer started a pen-pal project (for lack of a better way to describe it). She used computer magic to auto-pair the 380+ people who volunteered to participate. Then she instructed:
“I would like to ask the two of you to have a conversation with each other about something you’re each passionate about. It can take the form of an email, a video chat, a picture, a gchat, a postcard, or any other form of communication you can think of. When you’re done, please send me the url or the messages or whatever it is you decide to create in this form, and I will send it back out to the group.”
Kramer also noted what I observed above: “One of the best things about this newsletter, I think, is that it’s becoming a way for people to sandbox/share really good ideas.”
I was paired with Kaitlyn Benoit. We friended each other on Facebook and chatted about our interests; the conversation ended up being really affirming and great. You can read the full transcript on Medium, but here are the coolest things we said to each other:
“I think the most rewarding thing about musical performance is just being able to translate random black circles and lines on a staff into something audible that can be interpreted by listeners in a variety of ways.” — Katie
“Sentences don’t mean anything until someone reads them and interprets them with their own personal context and their own emotional background.” — Sonya
“there’s such an intimacy about reading something someone has written—we get to see how they turn words into meaning and how they string thoughts into sentences, AND we also get to use our own social context and worldview to understand those words and thoughts.” — Katie
“there’s such a cool space that’s created when you’re not in competition with someone but rather working together to offer insights and improve whatever it is you’re collectively working on or thinking about.” — Katie
“one of my favorite things about history is crafting the narrative. And that history is not the past, but a story of the past—the past never changes, but the story can.” — Katie