Thinking about The New Republic and what perhaps it really was, I’m reminded of the differences between “on-demand publishing” and conventional “traditional” publishing. The digital dissemination of music or writing is spectacularly disruptive, mainly because of the damage (or at least havoc) it wreaks upon extant business models. But how does it damage the creators, the writers, the sources of ideas?
Unquestionably, the publishers, from record companies to periodical and book publishers, have been dealt a heavy blow from which none will recover in any semblance of their original form. Why is this so? It’s primarily because the cost and inconvenience of reproduction and packaging have been almost entirely eliminated. This was the great barrier of entry for all competition, and it was the basis of their business model. We can make records or magazines or books, and you can’t. That’s no longer true, and in the last few years, even digital copies of books and recordings are becoming unnecessary inconveniences because of readily accessible streaming from ubiquitous perennial sources. I don’t have to own one; I’ll get it when I need it.
Given that most of the associated business models are soon to be defunct, what exactly are we losing? I submit, at least in the case of TNR, we’re losing three elements: curation, synergy, and identifiable readership. The scholars and writers and experts have many more outlets now than ever before, but their work is lost in the crowd. The editorial input and interchange with fellow writers and thinkers is no longer centralized, so the creativity takes place in a greater vacuum. And although most of the world now can easily access all this writing, the serious, participating audience has become invisible and the writers don’t know who their readership really is.
What we are not losing is the scholars, thinkers, experts, and writers; they may in fact be more numerous than ever. But a new problem has emerged, given sharp focus by the clumsy fiasco at TNR. What new institutions or conventions or mechanisms can replace the three lost elements? I have no doubt that replacements will emerge, and perhaps there will even be business models that can reward the writers better than TNR ever could. Although the magazine may have operated at a loss most of the time, perhaps some new venture’s editor/curator needn’t run in the red. Although only a lucky few could roam the halls of TNR and chat with editors and other thinkers, perhaps newly accessible forums of insight and discussion will be established. And the bidirectional nature of the new regime may well give rise to more and better feedback from an audience that is larger and more representative of those who might take the authors seriously.
All is not lost, but it’s a whole new enchilada.