Thursday, June 24, 2010

Newsstand cows

by Jessica
Although this is not directly connected to book publishing, how about this McChrystal flap?

Obviously, there are grave issues at stake here—people’s lives, and the prosecution of a very long, costly war—but at risk of sounding flip, this whole debacle seems to demonstrate that perhaps old media is not so toothless as its many eulogizers have proclaimed. Rolling Stone magazine is culturally relevant in way it hasn’t been for a good long while, and finds itself in the position of not simply breaking news but making news, as US foreign policy is reshaped in response to tales told out of school.

Once upon a time, however, readers would have had to go out and purchase an actual magazine from a newsstand to hear one of McChrystal’s advisers call Joe Biden “Bite-me.” That the full article is (now) but a click away, available for free on-line, must be both good and bad news for Rolling Stone, who apparently delayed posting the piece, perhaps in hopes that their refusal to give away the milk for free might prompt readers to buy a few cows. Of course, with so much of the buzz online, the delay was ill-advised, as their site missed out on some considerable traffic.

I’m curious to get your take, not so much on the General’s ouster (though that is fascinating) but whether you think that the instant access that most people had to the article—as well as the furious on-line discussion that ensued--amplified its effects? Or would this story have played out similarly in the slower days of old media?

Despite the fact that this is unfolding in the world of magazine, and not book publishing, I suspect that my book industry colleagues are taking note; there are certain parallels to the on-going e-book debates. As you probably know, some publishers advocate delaying their publication of a less expensive e-book edition so it will not undercut sales of a front-list hardcover. There are others who believe that making content freely available on-line is the best way to build an audience, and that simply drawing traffic is crucial. I'm not sure that the lessons from the Rolling Stone incident are yet manifest, or can be applied directly to books, but again, I'm interested to know what you think.

P.S. Last week, Publishing Perspectives put out the heads up that Project Gutenberg has made a number of public domain classics available in a variety of e-reading formats for free. Fun!


  1. Let's disassociate a) the 24/7 news-cycle (including online) from b) the specific availability of the Rolling Stone article online.

    a and b together, in my view, played out very similarly to the way it would have gone down with just a. The media reported all the juiciest bits elsewhere; you didn't need to look at the RS article itself to see them - people were curious to see it but all the really inflammatory stuff was widely reported before the article went up.

    Without the 24/7 news-cycle, OTOH, this would have played out more slowly and probably would have been delayed until RS hit the stands. But primary source itself quickly became secondary in the larger dynamic.

    So, in sum, I say no: access to the article itself made little difference in the current media context.

  2. The Lt. makes a good point. It is still 24/7 cable news rather than the Interwebz that dictates the pace of our culture.

    But I was a bit pleased to hear the supposedly moribund print media had sparked the drama. This incident punctuates the transition of baby-boomers to geezer-boomers. Rolling Stone--once the voice of rebellious youth--is now the voice of outraged elders.

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