There was a woman there who worked for Hill & Knowlton, but she had previously worked at Plesman as an editor. So had the guy who was now at Marketing magazine, and the girl who was freelancing full-time, and the guy who was now running some kind of video production studio. “Everyone starts at Plesman,” the Hill & Knowlton woman told me, as though this were a truism I should have learned in journalism school. She turned out to be right; those I rubbed shoulders with at press junkets and industry events have later turned into cubicle-mates, or people I’ve decided to hire. This has made hating the competition rather difficult, but I’ve certainly tried my best. Would I have ever imagined I would one day be collaborating with Paolo Del Nibletto, against whom I once tried to out-cover the channel when he was editing CRN Canada and I was a staff writer at CDN? Hardly. Would I have ever imagined working for IT World Canada, whose every typo I mocked mercilessly to my colleagues at Transcontinental Media? Um, not really. This is how it works in the media business: you try and keep your friends close, but you often wind up closer to your enemies.
I was reflecting on the nature of competition in the media after reading a review in the New Yorker recently by Jill Laporte about a biography of Henry Luce, the man who created Time, Fortune and Life magazines, among others. Like many publishers, Luce had an ego bigger than his circulation, and wasn’t afraid to use the platform at his disposal to attack his enemies. Chief among those enemies was Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker. Their war was not just over whose publications had the wider audience, but how their content was developed for specific, completely different audiences. Where the New Yorker was intended for the intellectual Manhattan sophisticate, Time purported to serve the common American, and crafted each sentence to be as efficient and as easy to digest as possible. Although these are consumer publications, their strategy was to be as targeted as we are. Instead of job title and purchasing power, they looked at income level and education. Sometimes they could end up marketing themselves to the same people, but the task of a great media property is to help someone define who they are in part by what they read. As Laporte notes, the hostility between Luce and Ross was fierce because attracting subscribers was such a battle:
To subscribe is to sign up. People used to subscribe to books, and printers would print the list of subscribers as front matter, to woo buyers. To subscribe to a book was to endorse it; it was like supplying a blurb. Magazines don’t print lists of subscribers, but the principle is the same: to subscribe is to belong. (That’s one reason that surfing what can no longer be called “periodical literature”—now it’s interminable—feels so aimless: its premise is not belonging.)
I disagree. It’s still possible to cultivate a sense of belonging in online journalism, and perhaps even a greater sense of belonging based on the degree of interactivity, personalization and opportunity for contribution the Internet affords. I feel pretty sure that if they were around today, Luce and Ross would readily understand the power of engagement and community. These elements would constitute the new battlefield for subscribers – even if we are more likely to call them something like “members” in the future.
“The Age of Efficiency is over. This is the Age of Immediacy, faster than the speed of thought,” Laporte added. “A week is an eternity; four hundred words is too many; yesterday is ancient. Stories aren’t only sorted by category; they’re ranked by popularity. If, one day, everything is for everyone, and everything is timely, the battles between editors won’t be as bloody, because there will be less to fight for.” No, because everything isn’t for everyone. We still need to define our audience, to be relentless in creating content relevant and useful to it, and to defend it from all rivals. “I’m not afraid of a brawl,” one of my former publishers once said in reference to the competition. Neither am I.