The Age of the Editor

Speech delivered at "The State and Fate of Publishing: A Flair Symposium"

Reason , November 11, 1994

On Tuesday, as it became clear that the Republicans really would win the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich made a pledge to the American people. He didn't talk about the balanced budget amendment or term limits or cutting taxes.

He talked about information.

Gingrich promised to make everything Congress does available electronically. Once the Republicans run the House, he said, Americans will be able to call up every bill, every committee report, every speech on their personal computers. Anyone with a computer and a modem will have access to the full records of the Congress.

Open government. Very nice. Very visionary.

Just what I would expect from the man I first met in 1983 at the World Science Fiction convention. Any politician who even thinks of campaigning at the WorldCon—much less one who gives a speech there when he's still an obscure backbencher from Georgia—is going to be big on the information age.

Gingrich's pledge calls to mind a commonplace vision of the age of abundant information. Everyone, it's said, will have access to everything, to all the world's data. Each of us will be able to select exactly what we want--to tailor our own newspapers, to check up on politicians, to send instantaneous letters and get instantaneous replies.

There's only one thing wrong with this vision. It ignores our most limited resource: time.

Gingrich promises to put Congress on-line, and I think that's a great idea. It will certainly make my job easier.

But as one of the half dozen Americans who actually read the original Clinton health-care bill, I can tell you that very few people have any interest in slogging through the virtual Congressional Record. That's what they pay me to do.

Or what they pay lobbyists to do. Or public-interest groups. Or scholars. Or radio talk show hosts. Or, yes, even congressional reporters.

Most people don't want raw data. They want information, or knowledge, or perhaps even wisdom. They want someone else to take the time to sift through the data, to select what is true or interesting or important, and to tell them about it.

And that is why the age of abundant media, the age in which the pipelines through which information flows become cheap and plentiful, is not the age of the atomized, individualized reader. It is the age of the editor. And the age of new media communities.

The interaction of editors and readers—or, to put it more broadly, producers and audiences—is creating powerful, overlapping communities with far different assumptions from those of the mass media.

Over the last year, I've attended several conferences and read countless articles on "new media." And what people always mean by that term is the Internet in its various manifestations. The Internet is in late 1994 what John Markoff of The New York Times calls, with some justification, "the national hula hoop." But the age of abundant media didn't start with the Internet.

Our vision of "media" is shaped by network television and daily newspapers. Until very recently, Americans considered it quite normal to assume that "the media" would mean three, largely homogeneous, centrally produced sources of information catering to an audience in the tens, or even hundreds, of millions. And that the Big Three networks would be supplemented primarily by monopoly daily newspapers catering to the broadest possible local community.

Confronted with the notion of a 500-channel universe, our social critics now fret about the fragmentation of our culture and worry about how anyone can produce enough content to fill 500 channels.

I'm not worried. I am, you see, the editor of a magazine with a circulation of 50,000. I know mass media are an aberration. We magazine editors have no trouble filling hundreds of channels.

A few blocks from my house is a new Borders bookstore that stocks 100,000-plus different book titles and several hundred different magazines. No one expects to go to its newsstand and see only Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News, with perhaps The Economist playing the role of PBS. In print, we take abundance for granted. We think nothing of the fact that there are a half dozen magazines devoted specifically to collecting and making expensive dolls or that we have not only sports magazines or home-decorating magazines or bride's but skateboarding magazines and kitchen and bathroom magazines and Southern bride's magazines.

In the magazine business, at least, abundance has been on the increase. The Magazine Publishers of America reports that since 1950, the number of U.S. periodicals has gone from just under 7,000 to more than 11,000. Just since 1980, the MPA's estimate has risen by almost 1,400—and that's a net figure that doesn't include all the magazines that have come and gone. When you throw in small literary journals, 'zines, and other tiny titles, there are far more magazines than the MPA can even begin to count. And desktop publishing is making them cheaper and easier to produce.

The lesson for the new media age is that when media are abundant, they become more specialized, like magazines and newsletters. And they develop more personal relationships between producers and audiences.

Mass media assume they produce programs or articles for the general public. And, in my experience, the editors and producers assume that the general public is not like them but should be. This produces a paradox that Don Roberts, a communications professor at Stanford, pointed out to me recently. Most journalists—by which he means most mass-market, "mainstream" journalists—are simultaneously populist and elitist. And these two strains are always in tension. (The tension is even greater among journalism professors.)

The more specialized the publication, the more readers and editors identify with each other, the less prominent is that tension. I do not think the reporters of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal think of themselves as writing for the uninformed masses who don't have the sense to know what's important. They, and their audiences, share an educated elite's sense of what issues are important. That's why the Times doesn't carry comics, or Dear Abby, or a mass-market Style section. And it's why both newspapers can find national audiences. Their communities are sociological, not geographical. They share what novelist Rebecca Goldstein called a "mattering map," a view of the world like the famous New Yorker cover where some subjects grow in importance and others shrink.

But there are degrees of identification. No newspaper approaches the personal relationship specialized magazines have with their readers. When you write a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, the "editor" in question isn't a real person but an institution. You are really writing to the Los Angeles community in general. The letter is a little editorial, broadcasting to your fellow readers. You do not expect a reply.

When you write a letter to Reason, however, you are writing to a person—me. In fact, most of the letters to the editor we get are addressed "Dear Ms. Postrel" or, very often, "Dear Virginia." And Reason editors, writers, and even interview subjects talk back. Reason readers identify with the magazine, even when it makes them mad, and they expect to have a conversation. The more letters and replies we run, the more we get.

New media are bringing this two-way relationship to mass-market publications. In a recent issue of Folio, the trade magazine for magazines, Philip Elmer-Dewitt, Time's technology editor and its chief correspondent in cyberspace, wrote about the newsweekly's experience going on-line. His article begins, "Six hours after Time launched its first online edition, I thought I was going to die of modem stress." He and a dozen other Time staffers had been typing greetings and answers to the 8,374 people who stopped by to chat--and who expected replies.

Two of his conclusions:

1. "To be successful in the world of online publishing, an interactive title must, above all, be interactive." Readers in new media communities expect replies. They expect two-way communication. They expect editors who identify with them, not editors who see them as a mass to shovel information at. In other words, they expect the kind of relationship with editors that specialized publications have with readers—only they expect it right this minute.

2. "The medium tends to attract people who feel their point of view isn't being represented by the mainstream media." Newly abundant media always outsiders, whether the medium in question is the Reformation-era pamphlet, the AM airwaves after music moved to FM, the underground newspaper and free urban weekly after "cold type" cut costs, or the "alternative" college newspaper since the coming of desktop publishing. Sometimes the outsiders are right-wing, sometimes they are left-wing, and sometimes they are just weird. But newly abundant media allow them to find each other, to create new communities of interest.

Consider two familiar, well-developed media: talk radio and urban weekly newspapers. One of the questions you often hear in these days of Rush Limbaugh is, Why are all talk-radio hosts right-wing?

To which I usually reply, Why is every urban weekly newspaper run by leftist editors?

It is silly to debate whether conservatives really dominate the radio airwaves—despite occasional exceptions, they clearly do. And so, too, do leftists dominate urban weekly newspapers, and for similar reasons that have to do with timing, technology, and opportunity.

Each of these once-new media not long ago represented abundance. When music stations moved to FM radio, AM needed programming. Conservatives who were too different, too unconventional and discomfiting, for the mass media found a place in the newly abundant AM spectrum. Beginning in the 1970s, they slowly built audiences for their talk shows until AM radio listeners came to expect a certain point of view from most talk hosts. Talk radio was built on two-way communication—that's why it's different from all-news radio.

And it exemplifies the Age of the Editor. People listen to Rush Limbaugh or Dennis Prager or even Howard Stern because they identify with him and trust him to represent them as he sifts through through the masses of data out there in the information age and finds what they, the community of listeners, will agree is important. Gordon Liddy begins each day of his nationally syndicated radio show by reading from the newspaper, primarily The Washington Times, for half an hour—with attitude.

By now, those of you who don't identify with Rush Limbaugh or Gordon Liddy are probably horrified. But the point isn't to celebrate particular radio hosts. They're just examples of a general trend as media become abundant. I could tell a similar story about offset printing, the heyday of the New Left, youth culture-driven advertising, and why all urban weeklies are left-wing.

Many intellectuals, including many journalists, would dearly love to be omniscient and authoritative—to know everything that's being written or said and to determine which things are important, true, or interesting. But we live in a world of subcultures—fully developed social ecologies we may know nothing about. Tom Wolfe has made his career writing about some of those subcultures—telling their stories to his subculture, which passes for mainstream journalism but is really very specific in time, place, and attitude. And Pat Robertson has made his career producing new media—from news programming to family entertainment—for one of the largest and most important.

All that we who like to decide what is important, true, or interesting can do is serve as editors and let communities of interest find us.

The new media make more editors, and more communities, possible. People can become editors by avocation—running bulletin boards or setting up usenet groups in their spare time, for example. But I have a warning for them: They risk becoming professionals. Reason's publisher and former editor, who got into this business during the heyday of alternative magazines and the dawn of cold type, spent eight years producing the magazine out of his kitchen while working as an engineer and consultant.

There's also a demand for editors of editors—for people who sift not through Newt Gingrich's masses of raw data, but for people who read or watch other people's work. Eric Utne has done a tremendous job defining a community of shared interests and creating a magazine, The Utne Reader, that sorts through the "alternative press" for those readers. The Utne Reader has turned Eric Utne's mattering map into a defining characteristic of a new media community. From a business point of view, I find The Utne Reader fascinating, since it's one of the few general-interest, politically charged national magazines to make money. It does so, in part, because it lets smaller publications do the expensive work of finding and reporting stories; it supplies the crucial value added by its editors of editors—the value of sifting through all those publications for a broader audience.

The Utne Reader has made the communication two-way—and multi-way, among readers—by starting "salons," discussion groups that meet in readers' homes around the country. Reason has done something similar, on a smaller scale, through "Evenings with the Editors," cocktail parties where readers can meet the editors and each other.

Such gatherings assume like-mindedness. They assume new media communities of shared interests and attitudes.

But new media communities don't just break up the common culture into subcultures. They allow outsiders to peek into communities of thought by visiting their media. You do not have to visit a Penecostal church with a politically active pastor to have some sense of that community's mattering map. You can watch "The 700 Club," as I occasionally do, just as I read The Utne Reader to keep up with its community.

This peeking into other communities is important. For one thing, it allows people with disagreements to challenge and check each other's claims. In her recent book, Who Stole Feminism? Christina Hoff Sommers challenges many of the statistical claims made by "victimhood" feminists and propagated through the mass media: claims, for instance, about the frequency of date rape or domestic violence or the relationship between the self-esteem of girls and their academic achievement. Some of these claims have already been challenged—and, I would argue, debunked—in alternative publications, including Reason. But Sommers's book—which has been publicized both through excerpts in such specialized publications as National Review and Allure and through the author's appearances on previously nonexistent new media such as CNN, C-Span, and CNBC—has translated the debate from the outsider communities of academic feminism and anti-victimhood political journals into mainstream, mass media.

Translation is, in fact, one of the roles for editors in the Age of the Editor. Abundance of information and media creates a role for bridges between subcultures. Indeed, one of my most important roles as editor of Reason is to act as a translator among at least four wildly different subcultures: the various policy establishments of Washington; the economists, political scientists, historians, and natural scientists of the academy; the small business owners of middle America; and the techies of Silicon Valley and cyberspace. In other words, Reason is the place where the readers of The New Republic, The Journal of Economic Literature, Science, Inc., and Wired find common ground. My readers would find nothing weird about the idea of a Ph.D. turned Congressman campaigning at a science-fiction convention. They would just be surprised that his Ph.D. is in European history from Tulane, not economics from Chicago.

And Reason readers will, I'm sure, be delighted with the idea of the virtual Congressional Record. And some will even periodically search through it for subjects of interest of them. But most will be too busy running businesses, raising families, and otherwise getting on with their lives to act as their own editors. As magician Penn Jillette recently told Wired, "The whole world is pretending the breakthrough is in technology. The bottleneck is really in art." The age of abundant media doesn't put editors out of work. It just puts a premium on our art.