Independence: An Endangered Species?
The hopes of many for the birth and sustenance of independent web journalism took a body blow recently when all 140 employees of the APBnews.com crime news site were let go with no warning, as the company's $27.1 million in start-up funds dissipated into a reported $7 million worth of debts in just one year. No one is arguing that the APBnews.com site--which featured such luminaries as Sydney Schanberg and had already picked up a few awards--was not first-rate. But with so many dot-com ventures going belly up, advertising rates declining from an already low benchmark and venture capitalists asking all the questions they should have been asking in the first place, it's a cold new world out there.
Like a bouncing corpse riddled with too many slugs from a Saturday Night Special, APB's attempt to revive itself, zombielike, from the living dead by selling itself to Rupert Murdoch's sleazy empire also failed. The upshot of its spectacular flame-out as an independent enterprise is that professional (non-Drudgelike) web journalism is too expensive to survive without the support of large corporate networks. Slate and MSNBC.com, for instance, both benefit from the financial and technological muscle of Microsoft. The prospects for other independents, like James Cramer's TheStreet and David Talbot's Salon, are a great deal less sanguine. (Kurt Andersen's expensive new Inside website is touting itself as a business-to-business service and hence is addressing itself to an entirely different market.) Both are trading at a tiny fraction of their formerly astronomical stock prices--making for a stream of high-profile defections by employees who were counting on stock-option riches--and are embroiled in costly internal battles.
Cramer is fighting with Murdoch's FNC in a confusing (and journalistically disturbing) argument over whether it's proper for him to tout his own stock on his own television show. Salon, meanwhile, is still recovering from a reader revolt following a now-discarded site redesign intended to please advertisers, which itself occurred on the heels of an embarrassing public pissing match with Slate's Michael Kinsley. With a "burn rate" of more than $5 million per quarter, Salon had to give pink slips to nearly 10 percent of its staff. According to W.R. Hambrecht, who underwrote its IPO, the site has enough cash to survive for about a year. But Salon's previous revenue estimates have proven highly inflated and its expenses, enormous. Given the new environment, it's hard to see who would be willing to pony up the necessary cash when the current kitty empties out.
All these developments are depressing from a journalistic point of view. Cramer is crazy, but his enthusiasm is infectious, and his site is about as interesting as anything in the financial world. And while Salon appears to be drifting even further toward sex and sensationalism--not to mention doorknob-licking--to try to save itself, its wildly uneven content does at least continue to make good on its boast of editorial independence. And that's one thing journalism can't get too much of. (Disclosure: I have written for Salon, write occasionally for Slate and am under contract to MSNBC.com.)
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Readers lamenting the recent demise of Emerge, the tough-minded, award-winning black-affairs publication that Vanguarde Media jettisoned in hopes of creating a black Vanity Fair to replace it, need not panic just yet. Editor George Curry tells me he will bring back a new version of the magazine with the same staff, the same commitment to the thoughtful, hard-hitting articles that made Emerge unique among black glossies and a much strengthened Internet component by the end of the year. Curry, who was recently elected to head the American Society of Magazine Editors, is right when he claims that Vanguarde, a business partner of Black Entertainment Television, was reluctant to promote the 150,000-circulation periodical beyond its own properties. If you don't watch BET, you may not have noticed it. This gives its fans hope that Curry may be right when he says he can make money on an independent version, given decent promotional support.
In the meantime, interested readers are encouraged to pick up the tremendously impressive publication of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Transition. Modeled after its African predecessor, founded in Kampala, Uganda, in 1961, and overseen by the ubiquitous Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah, with Wole Soyinka as head of the editorial board, Transition contains some of the smartest cultural criticism available anywhere. The current number boasts an eye-opening essay on "Black Fascism" by Paul Gilroy and fascinating meditations on John Brown by Russell Banks and James Baldwin. You can find a sampling at www.TransitionMagazine.com or call (617) 496-2847 to subscribe, while you're waiting for Emerge to re-emerge.
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A perspicacious study by David Kirkpatrick for the Authors Guild has discovered that the publication of "midlist" books, meaning literary fiction and serious nonfiction by noncelebrities, is not as endangered as previously believed. Publishers are publishing as much as ever. The problem is not production, it's promotion. With independent bookstores disappearing, library budgets being slashed and superstores being staffed by people who might as well be shelving toothpaste at Wal-Mart, no one seems to know how to sell these books in sufficient quantities to make money on them. The net result is a virtual vow of poverty for serious writers and the consequent impoverishment of our culture. Timothy Noah argues in Slate that this is good news for the consumer, but Tim has never written a book, much less tried to live on the income from one. According to Kirkpatrick, even a book by superstar David Foster Wallace earns only $25,000 a year. Random House legend Jason Epstein argues that publishing is about to be hit by a technological revolution, featuring digitized content and print-on-demand machines, that has the potential to wipe out much of the industry. Life being what it is, writers will likely end up getting screwed anyway.