February 15, 2013 4:09 pm

Net wisdom

Why some of the best writing is to be found on the internet, and what I’ve learnt from reading it every day, by Robert Cottrell, editor of the Browser
Illustration by Oliver Polanski of a man working on his laptop©Oliver Polanski

For much of my adult life I was a diligent producer of daily and weekly journalism. In recent years I have become a gargantuan consumer of it. It is a privilege to earn one’s living by writing but, as I discovered, it is also a privilege, and a less stressful one, to earn one’s living by reading.

I read all day. Were it not for the demands of sleep and family life, I would read all night. My aim is to find all the writing worth reading on the internet, and to recommend the five or six best pieces each day on my website, the Browser. I pass over in silence here the Browser’s many virtues. My purpose here is to share with you four lessons I have learnt in five years’ drinking from the fire hose.

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My first contention: this is a great time to be a reader. The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

I don’t pretend that everything online is great writing. Let me go further: only 1 per cent is of value to the intelligent general reader, by which I mean the demographic that, in the mainstream media world, might look to the Economist, the Financial Times, Foreign Affairs or the Atlantic for information. Another 4 per cent of the internet counts as entertaining rubbish. The remaining 95 per cent has no redeeming features. But even the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.

Each day I seek my six pieces with these criteria in mind: would I go out of my way to recommend this piece to one of my own friends? Will it inform and delight the intelligent general reader? Will it still be worth reading a month or a year from now?

I apply those rules, and I am almost always surprised and delighted myself by the stuff I bring back, all for free. Today, for example – I am writing this on February 7 – my final cut includes:

an essay by the musician David Byrne, on his own blog, about civil disobedience and the case of Aaron Swartz, the internet prodigy who committed suicide under threat of prosecution.

a scholarly book review in the online edition of Dissent magazine, by Steven Randy Waldman, about the history of financial risk, and the tensions between risk and personal freedom.

a commentary for the New Republic by Jeffrey Rosen, professor of law at George Washington University, on why the Obama administration’s guidelines for assassinating US citizens abroad are unconstitutional.

These are the best, the top drawer, the keepers. I know when I have found such a piece, because I cannot stop reading until the end.

As such, they are relatively rare. Where the internet excels is in serving up plentiful writing that sits, you might say, one level down: at the level of very good daily journalism, whether on subjects of immediate interest for a general audience or more esoteric subjects for a specialised audience. I see scores of pieces each day that are plainly written, strongly argued and highly informative.

Where is it coming from? Some of it comes from professional journalists, writing for the websites of established publications or on their own blogs. But much of it – the great new addition to our writing and reading culture – comes from professionals in other fields who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read. I am sorry that the internet gifted this practice with such an ugly name, “blogging”, but it is too late to change that now.

As a gross generalisation, academics make excellent bloggers, within and beyond their specialist fields. So, too, do aid workers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, economists, poets, financiers, engineers, publishers and computer scientists. They blog for pleasure; they blog for visibility within their field; they blog to raise their value and build their markets as authors and public speakers; they blog because their peers do.

Businessmen and politicians make the worst bloggers because they do not like to tell what they know, and telling what you know is the essence of blogging well. They also fear to be wrong; and, as Felix Salmon, Reuters’ finance blogger, insists and sometimes demonstrates: “If you are never wrong, you are never interesting”.

To read the blog of a political scientist, or an anthropologist, or a lawyer, or an information technologist, is the next best thing to reading their mind; better, in some ways, since what they have to say emerges in considered form. These are the experts who, a couple of decades ago, would have functioned as sources for newspaper journalists. Their opinions would emerge often mangled and simplified, always truncated, in articles over which they had no final control.

Now we can read them directly, and discover what they actually think and say. We can know, for example, what lawyers are saying about a new appointment to the Supreme Court; what political scientists expect from an election; how computer scientists evaluate Apple’s updated operating system; what economists expect from a new government policy. The general reader has access to expertise that was easily available, a decade ago, only to the insider or the specialist.

Here are some elite blogs for your reading diet, if you don’t have them bookmarked already. For American legal commentary, I recommend the Volokh Conspiracy. For political science, the Monkey Cage. For economics, Marginal Revolution. For computing, Asymco. For literature, the Millions. Treat these as starting points: most blogs feature a shortlist of other recommended blogs in the same field, providing stepping stones with which to explore further.

My second contention as a professional reader is one that may seem self-evident in the world of blogging but also holds good across the whole universe of online writing and publishing: the writer is everything. The corollary of this also holds good: the publisher (with a few exceptions) is nothing.

After thousands of diligent appraisals, I can confidently sign off on this excessively simple truth: good writers write good pieces, regardless of subject and regardless of publication. Mediocre writers write mediocre pieces. And nothing at all can rescue a bad writer.

A simple assertion, but put it in context and it becomes more complex and interesting. Think back to the days when print media ruled. Your basic unit of consumption was not the article, nor the writer, but the publication. You bought the publication in the hope or expectation that it would contain good writing. The publisher was the guarantor of quality.

Professional writers still see value in having publishers online, not so much as guarantors of quality, but because publishers pay for writing – or, increasingly, if they do not pay for it, they do at least publish it in a place where it will get read.

Readers, on the other hand, have less of a need for publishers. One striking trend I have noticed in the past five years is the way in which individual articles uncouple themselves from the places where they are first published, to lead their own lives across the internet, passed from hand to hand between readers.

This is due, in large part, to the rise of social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter. Five years ago, you needed to visit a publisher’s website to see what was new there. Now, you hear about a particular article through Twitter or Facebook; a friend will share the link; you may visit the page directly but more probably you will save the link to your Instapaper or your Readability account, or mark it for reading later in your Flipboard feed, or on your Kindle or other reading device, and you will enjoy the piece later, probably offline. The article is what matters to the reader; the place of original publication may not even be noticed.

Indeed, from a reader’s point of view, many online publishers subtract value. Let us say you have a writer who wants a reader; and a reader who wants a writer. Perfect. But if there is a publisher involved, his instincts will probably be to fill the space between reader and writer with banner advertisements, the object of which is to distract the reader from reading.

There are exceptions. As a reader I applaud, in no particular order, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, and McSweeney’s. They and others like them take seriously the job of publishing online. They care about building sites and apps that make readers want to read, and writers want to write. They show intelligence, good taste, and restraint. Long may they prosper.

That said, it seems to me almost inevitable that a new business model for reading and writing online will prevail in the future, which consists of readers rewarding directly the writers they admire. Almost inevitable, because this is by far the most efficient economic arrangement for both parties, and there are no longer any significant technological obstacles to its general adoption.

That also seems to be the view of Andrew Sullivan, the English-born American-based journalist who made his name in the 1990s as editor of the New Republic, before founding the Daily Dish, a wide-ranging political blog, in 2000. It now attracts about 1.8m unique visitors a month.

After years of successive partnerships with Time magazine, the Atlantic, and the Daily Beast, Sullivan decided this year to take the Dish independent, saying he wanted “to create a place where readers – and readers alone – sustain the site”. Subscriptions are priced at $19.99 a year: during January alone, Sullivan raised $511,000 for the new venture.

Lesser blogs may not be able to raise money on Sullivan’s scale but nor may they need to do so. The important lesson of the Dish experiment so far is that, contrary to received wisdom, internet users are willing to pay for content but that loyalty and affection towards the particular writer or brand probably have to be a big part of the transaction.

And so to my third contention: we overvalue new writing, almost absurdly so, and we undervalue older writing. I feel this market failure keenly each day when I recommend a fine piece of writing that deserves to be read for years to come and yet will have at most two days in the sun.

You never hear anybody say, “I’m not going to listen to that record because it was released last year,” or, “I’m not going to watch that film because it came out last month.” Why are we so much less interested in journalism that’s a month or a year old?

The answer is that we have been on the receiving end of decades of salesmanship from the newspaper industry, telling us that today’s newspaper is essential but yesterday’s newspaper is worthless.

That distinction has been increasingly bogus since newspapers lost their news-breaking role to faster media 50 years ago, and began filling their pages with more and more timeless writing.

While consumers had to rely on print media, the distinction between old and new could be sustained by availability: today’s newspaper was everywhere, yesterday’s newspaper was nowhere, except perhaps in the cat litter.

Online, that distinction disappears – or it should. You can call up a year-old piece as easily as you can call up a day-old piece. And yet we hardly ever do so, because we are so hardly ever prompted to do so. Which condemns tens if not hundreds of thousands of perfectly serviceable articles to sleep in writers’ and publishers’ archives, written off, never to be seen again.

Why do even big publishing groups with the resources to do so (the New Yorker is an honourable exception) make so little attempt to organise, prioritise and monetise their archives?

The best explanation I can suggest comes from an analogy given to me by George Brock, a former managing editor of The Times, who is now professor of journalism at City University in London. Think of a newspaper or magazine as a mountain of data, he says, to which a thin new layer of topsoil gets added each day or each week. Everybody sees the new soil. But what’s underneath gets covered up and forgotten. Even the people who own the mountain don’t know what’s in the lower layers.

They might try to find out but that demands a whole new set of tools. And, besides, they are too busy adding the new layer of topsoil each day.

I suspect that the wisest new hire for any long-established newspaper or magazine would be a smart, disruptive archive editor. Why just sit on a mountain of classic content, when you could be digging into it and finding buried treasure?

My fourth contention is that the internet is a force for brevity. Hard to believe, I know. You think of it as a place where people witter on for ever.

But when you’re writing online, you don’t have to fill an expected space or length, as you do when you write for a print publication. When you have a fixed space to fill, the temptation is to provide the minimal decent amount of original work needed, wrapped up in the maximum tolerable amount of verbiage. When you have no particular space to fill, there’s no marginal utility to be derived from going on any longer than you need to.

It helps, too, that when you’re writing online, there’s no need to introduce and source every person, place and fact you mention, and no need to fill in the backstory for those new to the subject. You can link out to the source document or the related story – or just assume your reader knows how to use Google and Wikipedia.

This trend towards brevity is even more marked when it comes to books. Online publishing has spawned a new category of short books, 10,000 to 30,000 words long – Kindle Singles, Penguin Shorts, Atavist Originals and others – that give writers the space in which to turn round a big idea or a big story quickly and nimbly. Very often, 10,000 to 30,000 words is all a big idea needs, when you don’t need to bulk it out with anecdotes to justify the price of a hardback book or to make sure it still has some value when it finally gets printed in a year. You can keep your thesis lean and topical. One of the most discussed popular economics books of the past two years, The Great Stagnation, by Tyler Cowen, was written as a 15,000-word ebook.

I could go on. But, speaking of brevity, here you will have to excuse me. I have 775 unread items from today in my RSS feed, and about six hours of Twitter to spool back through. Somebody has to do it, and I’m glad it’s me.

Robert Cottrell is editor of the Browser, www.thebrowser.com

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