Metafilter, "magazine" of the future!
October 20, 2006 8:52 AM   Subscribe

If The Atlantic Monthly (or Harper's, or The New Yorker) were founded today, would it be Metafilter?

I'm actually with The Atlantic , and I'm writing an article about the future of serious, high brow general interest magazines. IMO, Metafilter provides a good model for what's coming. But I want to hear what you think. I'm especially interested in hearing from people who work in journalism, and magazine journalism in particular. Editors, writers, people on the business side. If you'd like to respond (or talk to me) off the air, write me at "mpoe at theatlantic dot com." Thanks in advance.
posted by MarshallPoe to Media & Arts (31 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I'm a journalist.

I guess I'm not certain on what you mean by providing a good model for what's coming. Is that in terms of moving away from print to the web, or in terms of the way information and articles are presented to us? (Or something else?)

Aside from the digital/tangible angle, I think the key distinction is that unlike The Atlantic Monthly, Metafilter is not a content provider, but rather an aggregator--albeit a very good one. That is, Metafilter depends rather heavily on publications like Harper's or The New Yorker to provide us all with something to read. No matter how great an FPP is, it isn't original content.

I think what you're getting at, though, is that Mefi users are able to cobble together a sundry of articles and concisely summarize them in a way that readers can easily grasp. It's a medium that allows someone who wants to join a discussion to do so without much reading, but still permits people to dig much deeper into the issues.

Of course, FPP's to YouTube vidoes sort of throw that vision to shit.
posted by dead_ at 9:04 AM on October 20, 2006

I think the key distinction is that unlike The Atlantic Monthly, Metafilter is not a content provider, but rather an aggregator--albeit a very good one.

I don't think that Metafilter or AskMeta are simply aggregators. Surely you can think of an original idea or suggestion that has been posited in some way on a thread you appreciated? The way we receive and disseminate information is changing in a very real way.
posted by ifranzen at 9:08 AM on October 20, 2006

You think the Atlantic Monthly isn't an aggregator?

It aggregatres readers for advertisers, and writing/editorial talent/judgement for readers.

MeFi isn't much different, except it doesn't get the writers or editors paid, but it can help readers find writers, who have their own opportunities to get ad revenue.
posted by Good Brain at 9:17 AM on October 20, 2006

FYI, this should go in MetaTalk, as it's MeFi-related. Brace yourself for potential deletion.
posted by amro at 9:27 AM on October 20, 2006

Response by poster: Amro, I thought about that. It's sort of a tweener. If Jessamyn or Matt (or anyone else) would rather see this posted to MetaTalk, I'd be happy to have it removed and reposted there.

I agree in part with those who think that the FFPs on Metafilter often (though not always) rise to the occasion of "content." IMO, MeFits have invented a new genre of journalistic expression, and it's the FFP. Also, people pay to be members of the Metafilter community (albeit only 5 bucks). None of the trad magazines can get people to pay for on-line only content.
posted by MarshallPoe at 9:39 AM on October 20, 2006

Leave it up, its Atlantic Monthly related, media related, and not only mefi related.

The comments are a substantial part of the content of this site, its as if the Atlantic had 50 pages of letters to the editor. And, a lot of good FPPs create a sum that is greater than the whole of the parts by bringing together diverse sources with a single theme upon the inspiration of the poster/author. Combined with comments, each FPP has the potential to grow into the equivalent of a collaborative magazine article. Now, most don't of course, but if two or three per month do, then that is an article rate similar to the Atlantic.

On the other hand, something like the huffington post with its combination of posts, comments, and individual blogs is probably even closer to the Atlantic.
posted by Rumple at 9:39 AM on October 20, 2006

To answer your question succinctly, no. MetaFilter as it is today would not be what the New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, et al were founded the day.

As much as I love MetaFilter, it's content to trash ratio is too high because the barrier to membership is too low. $5 is more than almost any other Web 2.0ish website asks to be a contributing member, but it's still too low of a requirement to ensure quality. Magazines like Harper's never fail to amaze me for the sheer quantity of quality material. I dread missing an article there when I own an issue, but I skip 2/3's of the links on MetaFilter these days.

To answer your question more broadly, the model at MetaFilter could certainly be tomorrow's high-brow magazine. That said, you absolutely need moderated comments with standards and an editor either choosing which posts make it to front page or at least who can post to the front page for a viable model to work. Then it starts looking more like a DailyKos model than MetaFilter.

I think the only way it could work would be to let a site like MetaFilter trickle it's way into print by publishing the most favorite[d] FPP's, questions, comments, and answers. I think the problem there would be a vote-manipulation of some sort.

I speak only as a former wannabe-gonzo, hurricane-chasing, column-writing, college newspaper and alt weekly writer.
posted by trinarian at 9:41 AM on October 20, 2006

I think metafilter is more akin to a dorm common room than a print magazine. It's a very large meandering conversation drawing on any informational flotsam that drifts by. I don't think it provides "a good model for what's coming" as it is already here and as been for a while. It is the public forum of long ago, turned virtual. Anyone can post, unlike in the Atlantic or the New Yorker, where you need to get through editorial oversight first.
posted by cal71 at 9:58 AM on October 20, 2006

I don't think print media is headed towards embracing the participatory aspects of other (mainly web based) aggregates. Sure review journals are sort of analogous, but not literary review journals.. the purposes are pretty different.

If the Atlantic Monthly were founded today, it would be a Public Space.
posted by shownomercy at 10:02 AM on October 20, 2006

As a counterpoint to what dead_ said, I wonder if this might go both ways. Rather too often in the last few years I've noticed that a Harper's Reading has been lifted from some website or other, perhaps even via Metafilter. Takes some of the pleasure out of a magazine that is otherwise unique.
I suppose this is just the world we live in these days - whereas once an editor of an ephemera section like this would've been able to find unique content to reprint, from hardcopy - a xeroxed zine like that newsletter from a midwest retirement home, or something bizarre from China - nowadays everything that is interesting, shocking, amusing in print or video makes it onto the internet almost in real time... so inevitably places like Metafilter will get their hands on the goods first.
On the other hand, who would have the patience to read through anything of length or depth on a website - James Langewiesche's series about the collapse of the twin towers, or a serialized novel? The internet might have the upper hand in delivering tidbits and amusement, and immediate news and short analysis, but for serious writing, and writing that will be taken seriously (never mind taken on the train, or to the beach!) magazines like yours or the New Yorker or Harper's will always be needed.
posted by Flashman at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2006

Well, I can think of one aspect of MetaFilter that a magazine might try to emulate — the sense that posts and responses constitute an ongoing public conversation.

It's common to see posts and comments refer (implicitly or explicitly) to older ones on the same subject, either for support, for contrast, or to refute them outright. It's rare to see magazine articles engaging like that with the articles from previous issues. It's especially rare to see a debate or a line of reasoning played out over successive issues unless it's part of a pre-planned series — whereas here, we have ongoing debates all the time, with plenty of room for new and unplanned-for positions to crop up.

But yeah, the anyone-can-post aspect of MetaFilter isn't so magazine-worthy. We can read this for free. If we subscribe to your magazine instead, it's because it has higher quality content and more consistent editing, not because we love killing trees.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2006

As much as I love MetaFilter, it's content to trash ratio is too high

It's high, I agree, but your trash is not necessarily my trash. That's why I like MetaFilter. I like the rough edges, the irreverence, the lewdness and the profane mixed with the erudite. MetaFilter is more like the early Esquire or Playboy in that regard. Every once in a while there's some really good trash. Give the readers some credit for sorting that out. Most MeFites don't come here simply for information; Matt is in the entertainment business.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:17 AM on October 20, 2006

In light of the prominence of half-truths and idological wankery on MeFi, I'd say that Harper's is a much closer match than is The Atlantic, which is the second-best magazine in the world.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:54 AM on October 20, 2006

No way! Metafilter is for fun and socializing. For serious journalism, I want a hotshot, brilliant journalist (or a couple of them working together) plying his/her trade in exchange for money. In other words, a professional who has access to information and skills I don't have.

Metafilter might on occasion turn up some original "reporting," but it's nothing like, say, what that fellow Stephen Grey has done about CIA rendition. If Metafilter started hiring reporters like him to provide content, then it wouldn't really be Metafilter anymore...
posted by footnote at 10:57 AM on October 20, 2006

it's as if the Atlantic had 50 pages of letters to the editor

Exactly. (And unedited letters at that.) I don't see how you can compare a top-notch magazine with long, carefully researched and edited articles to a group blog, no matter how good the latter may be (and MeFi is very good despite the problematic content-to-trash ratio). The Atlantic and MetaFilter are both good things, of very different kinds; there's no prospect of either morphing into the other, and the world would be a lesser place if that happened.
posted by languagehat at 11:00 AM on October 20, 2006

The demographics are the same, the content is not. This is apples and oranges.
posted by geoff. at 12:02 PM on October 20, 2006

Given the state of the advertising market, the future of magazines like that, and most broadsheet newspapers, is bankruptcy. Seriously, I write for broadsheets and small-circulation magazines, and I doubt even half of them will exist by the end of my working life - in a previous mini-career I wrote about electronic music and nightclubs, and only one or two of the dozen specialist magazines I wrote for exist now, five years later. (I know they're not strictly analagous, but the general trend is downward.)

It might be that quality magazines will turn into the 'little magazines' of the past - small circulation niche operations, with private funding (but even then, I wonder whether future generations will be so used to digital as opposed to print media that the convention of reading a collection of long articles on paper will be anathema to them).

Either that, or your magazine will be come on a magical networked ebook-type device allowing for targeted advertising that changes over time... free jetpacks with every issue.

IMO, Metafilter provides a good model for what's coming.

You're going to have to be a bit more specific about that. A site where people post and read links, optionally discussing them, has so little in common with 'high brow general interest magazines' that I can't see how one can provide a model for the latter - they're not in the same sport, let alone the same ballpark.

In the most general sense, though, I suppose an editor looking to set up an online community to accompany a magazine could do a lot worse than look to MetaFilter.

It's rare to see magazine articles engaging like that with the articles from previous issues. It's especially rare to see a debate or a line of reasoning played out over successive issues unless it's part of a pre-planned series

Depends on the magazine - Private Eye will happily refer to articles from previous issues, some many years old, and has been covering some stories for decades.
posted by jack_mo at 1:04 PM on October 20, 2006

Harper's and The Atlantic are chewed cud, regurgitated for the benefit of the immature and the enfeebled; MetaFilter is the sweet and living grass itself.
posted by jamjam at 1:07 PM on October 20, 2006

Hells no. Have you read MetaFilter?
posted by chunking express at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2006

Response by poster: jack_mo, by "a good model for what's coming," I mean Mefi does some good things that the AM, NYer and Harper's don't (yet). To wit.

1. Mefi gets readers to pay a subscription (albeit small) for pure-play on-line content.

2. Mefi allows constant feedback between the "editors" (us) and the "readers" (us), so that content is pretty well targeted. When it's not, we tell ourselves, so to say.

3. Mefi publishes interesting, often high brow stuff that is hard to find and it does so in great quantity all the time. Readers love that.

4. Mefi attracts really smart people who (probably) have high incomes. Advertisers love that.

5. Mefi has a degree of "engagement" that is almost unheard of in the high brow print magazine world. Advertisers love "engagement."

I could go on. I agree, of course, that there is usually a big difference between a FPP and a long form investigative piece. The Atlantic has a huge edge here. But as you (jack_mo) point out, the economics of long form are very tough. We need to find a way for long form to pay for itself.

Ideas, anyone?
posted by MarshallPoe at 2:09 PM on October 20, 2006

1. Mefi gets readers to pay a subscription (albeit small) for pure-play on-line content.

Well, we're not really paying for the content, since you can read for free. We're paying for the right to join in the squabble. If you could somehow combine the "long form" with the paid-for squabble, you'd be gold.
posted by footnote at 2:54 PM on October 20, 2006

I am now imagining the metafilter squabbling moderated by David Remnick, Michael Kelly (may he rest in peace), and Lewis Lapham. I'd probably pay for that. Or being able to read Frank Rich's latest column and then squabbling with other Mefites over it while he participated. This kind of thing would be worth maybe even $10 a year...
posted by cal71 at 3:05 PM on October 20, 2006

there is usually a big difference between a FPP and a long form investigative piece. The Atlantic has a huge edge here. But as you (jack_mo) point out, the economics of long form are very tough. We need to find a way for long form to pay for itself.

I'd caution against attributing the comparative lack of content requiring extensive research to "economics." In the OSS world, many, many people have written huge amounts of brilliant code for free. It weirds a lot of businesspeople out, and most days I have a hard time believing that it's happening too, but in that arena, reputation and civic altruism have been shown to be really powerful motivators.

As such, I'd say that the reason posts at community sites like MeFi don't get the same amount of work as enterprise journalism isn't that the authors aren't getting paid, but that the readership and influence are much lower. While MeFi might have more readers per month than The Atlantic Monthly (and since wiki puts the monthly's circulation at 425,000, I assume that it does), our content volume blows it away, meaning that fewer people read an average post than read an average Monthly article. In addition, we generally can't get the interviews with CEOs, lobbyists and politicians that make up the meat of many print articles.

(Also, MeFi may be the wrong reference anyway, since the ban on self-linking would prevent us from posting interviews like that).

OSS has been more successful than the blogosphere at generating work-intensive content because its work is less ephermeral; a particular software release may continue to be used years after being published, which gives coders a greater sense that their work is making a difference. In addition, writing software is inherently more collaborative than writing prose, which makes developing a new release more socially rewarding than writing a new post. We still get some of that collaborative fuzziness in commenting, so it's not surprising that in our occasional investigative projects, like the laptop scam, the mystery, and kaycee nicole, the investigation has continued well after the original issue is basically resolved.

Money is still a factor, of course, if only in that we don't get airfare and expense accounts. And while MeFi places much greater emphasis on personal reputation than most of the internet (and benefits greatly from it), we're still much more anonymous than the print world (and, ironically, the OSS world), which mitigates the value of reputations as motivators.

Anyway, to summarize: the success of OSS suggests that money is not the limiting factor that prevents volunteers from producing great content for free... altruism and social motivations can provide powerful substitutes. If there's a difference in the quality of the commentary on MeFi and that in the magazine world, I'd point to the differences in readership and influence, along with our weaker reputation system.

If you could somehow combine the "long form" with the paid-for squabble, you'd be gold.

I've thought for awhile that Wikipedia could eliminate the large majority of it's accuracy and vandalism problems by charging for user accounts.
posted by gsteff at 3:59 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Marshall, I agree with you that the form that Matt has been establishing here is one that can be abstracted and applied to building a transitional internet publication model for the Big Three.

However, I suspect that the key to doing so is buying MetaFilter and Matt outright, for Web2.0 money, which only Conde Nast, I think, could afford; and then of course that would be the end of it.

Matt, I know your background is in software design - have you thought about how you could leverage your income by creating a shrinkwrap version of the software and then making yourself available as a consultant?

Of the websites of the Big Three, the only one I return to over and over (pace Paul Ford's inspired work for harpers) is the New Yorker, and this DESPITE the asinine hidden-and-not-consistent archive links. Pour New Yorker content into a MetaFilter glass, and you are describing a webvertising grail.

The long-articles problem is one that has yet to be resolved, of course. Generally if I need to revisit a long Hersh piece and I don't have the issue anymore, I will actually print a hard copy and read it in bed, as I do with the magazine; this is also how I read the Sunday NYT think pieces as well.

That suggests that providing expansive printable content with embedded - BUT NOT INK HUNGRY - ads might be a decent way to develop the reach that is needed to fund the business.

With regard to bringing the MeFi threaded discussion model to the Big Three table, well, that's a tough one. The aspects of MeFi that will work for the magazines are the ones that have ALWAYS been shut down during development and deployment in the process for other publications (such as the New Yorker site, the NYT site [even post redesign], and even online-only stuff like Slate).

I'm referring to transparent linking structure that is consistent over long periods of time, simple simple SIMPLE. Page design that loads quickly. Unobtrusive ad placement that de-emphasizes crap like the blinking honking cursor-vanishing browser-crashing teeth-gnashing rich media instant migraine generators that so dominates non-adword webvertising these days.

Another issue is the understandable concerns that many highly qualified writers in the arena you're looking at have about both online republication of their material and the fishbowl effect of the web itself on what has otherwise been an offstage activity. Adding threaded discussion forums to the end of every long article might not be the best way to approach every piece; sidebar forums and Q&As, a la the New Yorker's site are also insufficient solutions.

One thing I've done as a freelancer is publish a piece and then run some portion of my notes (or the interview transcript) on my blog. That practice is not necessarily the best way to build traffic, but it does respect the transparent and researchable information model that undergirds many of the most compelling pieces seen on MeFi (such as y2k's amazing music posts).

Anyway, great question, great place to ask it.
posted by mwhybark at 4:05 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Matt, I know your background is in software design

posted by gsteff at 4:09 PM on October 20, 2006

Hey, UI is software too!
posted by mwhybark at 4:16 PM on October 20, 2006

4. Mefi attracts really smart people who (probably) have high incomes. Advertisers love that.

I make $425 a month [I work overseas]. In America, I made about $13000 less than the GDP per capita. Everyone at my job had at least a 4-year degree, many of them had masters degree's and made about the same. At the state univerisy I went to, most Ph.D.'ed professors made just under the GDP per capita figure. And I'm sure you know about the plight of adjuncts...

Unfortunately, the intelligence to pay ratio is also crap.
posted by trinarian at 8:30 PM on October 20, 2006

It's rare to see magazine articles engaging like that with the articles from previous issues. It's especially rare to see a debate or a line of reasoning played out over successive issues

The only example of this that comes to my mind is The Economist, and they do this quite consistently. If an issue has been covered by them before they'll say "we told you so" or "oops, we were wrong" right up front.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:15 PM on October 20, 2006 is an interesting model-- they have top notch thinkers (tech/futurist bent) write an essay and then other members of Edge comment on the essays (sometimes a single member will write an essay length response, sometimes half a dozen members will chime in.)
posted by gwint at 7:19 AM on October 24, 2006

People pay for big name writers. Look at the NY Times Select model--most of it is based around getting people to pay to read certain established columnists. When a "big name" shows up here in the MeFi world, s/he gets a MetaTalk thread, a sidebar mention, and many favorited comments. A way for long form journalism to pay for itself already exists in this model, but god forbid there were ever a MetafilterSelect that required an extra $5 ante to read the opinions of Wozniak, Pogue, or the guy from Mythbusters. All that "content" would be mirrored, hacked, and reposted on other blogs almost immediately.
posted by mattbucher at 7:43 AM on October 24, 2006

I've also thought that Edge is an interesting model. It always seem to me that a 'long-form' MeFi would be really interesting: a Metafilter not structured around posts but around essays. A paid writer writes a long-form essay; over the course of a month users of the site write long-form continuations, responses, or replies; editors choose the best of these; then all the replies, with the best emphasized, and with new articles by paid writers, form the content of the next published issue. All the users hope someday to be paid for articles, and can pitch articles to the editors.

To me the great thing about MeFi (and ask MeFi) is that there are many smart people who are not journalists and who have a lot of specialized and interesting knowledge. Those people will never leave their careers to write articles for the New Yorker or Atlantic, but could very well be great writers themselves. You get to read them in the MeFi comments. I can think of a lot of MeFi writers whom I'd like to read in a long-form way. (I don't want to read their blogs--but I'd like to read an essay written by them.)

I think it would be fascinating to see David Remnick or his editorial assistants go to work on choosing excellent essays written by readers in response to New Yorker articles, and then publish those responses in an ongoing discussion.
posted by josh at 1:17 PM on October 24, 2006

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