Cults of authority

Last month, I wrote a post about IAC's recent decision to stop producing a print edition of Newsweek. In it, I suggested that the decision demonstrated how the era of cheap print had ended. 

A couple of days after that post, Jim Kelly, a former editor of TIME magazine (and a colleague when I worked there) wrote "The “Shock” of the News Magazine Death: Tina Brown, Robert Hughes, and the Dwindling Cult of Authority". After attending a memorial service for Robert Hughes, a critic of art and culture who had long written for TIME, Kelly linked his passing with a perceived change in the nature of the newsmagazine audience:

"Today, Hughes would not be able to enjoy the stature that he had in his heyday, and that is not a knock against him or, for that matter, against newsmagazines. Rather, the kind of reader that made Hughes successful has pretty much disappeared: the aspirational reader who wanted to appear smart about art and music and science but not be treated as dumb by those doing the instructing."

Kelly thinks he knows why:

"The voice of an Authority got displaced by the recommendations and likes of your Friends, a trend that began before Facebook came along but was accelerated by its explosive growth. I’d argue that the decline of the well-paid, medium-skilled job and the diminishing fortunes of the middle class also took its toll; it is hard to care about what makes Goya great if you are reduced to eating Goya beans five times a week."

Wrapping up his post, Kelly maintains that "Bob Hughes remained big. It’s the audience that got small."

Though Kelly does not dismiss the audience, there's a risk in pining for aspirational readers and cults of authority. Readers do seek authority, but their search has become less mediated. As a reference point, look at the site traffic for Real Clear Politics, a reasonably apolitical site that presents both compilations of polls and links to bi-partisan commentary on national and state races in the United States.

Yes, it's true that a media consumer can choose her own view of the facts. But this is hardly new. Under Henry Luce, TIME magazine had a number of philosophical hard lines, notably a strong bias against communism. Luce seldom hesitated in using the pages of TIME to advance his agenda.

I think what has changed was captured by Clay Shirky in his 2008 book, "Here Comes Everybody". Authority is breaking out all over, and it's not a function of what your friends on Facebook say. People with experience, passion and perspective no longer have to work for TIME, or Newsweek or the New York Times to be heard. There's a forum at our fingertips.

That doesn't make everyone an expert, but it does mean that the value of any magazine can be measured against a variety of information alternatives. In the current era, Robert Hughes would need TIME much less than was the case in the 1980s.

As Kelly points out, Robert Hughes was cross-platform before we knew what cross-platform meant. I don't think Hughes would be diminished by this era. He'd revel in it, even if he periodically thundered against the interlopers.

A bit of disclosure: I worked at Time Inc. from 1983 to 1995, much of it spent at TIME itself. As the post indicates, I worked a bit with Jim Kelly, who always made me laugh. Sometimes I gave him reason to laugh, as well. We both lament the changes in the newsmagazine business, even if we see it from different points of view.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.