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Truthdiggers of the Week: Laurent Beccaria and Patrick Saint-Exupéry

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Posted on Sep 29, 2013
XXI

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.

What to do?

The question has tormented editors and publishers since the turn of the millennium, when the means of delivering information began their rapid expansion to the computer screen. The best answers did not present themselves immediately, and early on, the outcome of every cautious step was never certain. “Pressed by the Internet’s major players,” write Laurent Beccaria and Patrick Saint-Exupéry, “newspaper and magazine publishers have advanced over shifting ground, and their erratic course has often turned panicky.”

The two men are the publisher and editor, respectively, of the French general interest quarterly, XXI. Their comment first appeared in an insert in the Winter 2013 issue of their magazine and was republished in the “Readings” section of the October issue of Harper’s Magazine. The full piece, appearing under the title “Content and Its Discontents,” is in every sense a manifesto for the preservation and support of journalism in the Internet age.

What distinguishes Beccaria and Saint-Exupéry as pioneers of their trade? Their name provides a clue. The answer centers on a deep commitment to the shape of journalism in the 21st century and includes an understanding of the typical journalist’s experience as it has evolved under the influence of unregulated market forces.

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“Journalists are subjected to what psychologists call paradoxical injunctions, that is, contradictory obligations,” they write. “They are expected to keep up with the exhausting reactivity of the Web … to exhibit professional mastery of a demanding range of media… and to conform both to journalistic ethics and to the exigencies of click tallying. … They participate in countless seminars, where PowerPoint presentations teach them more about corporate jargon than about their profession. Working under the auspices of a ‘media brand,’ which is increasingly a bazaar where everything’s for sale and contradictory promises are the order of the day, journalists lose their bearings.

“In a world where readers are referred to as ‘information consumers,’ ” they continue, “the outlines of a new profession—what may be called the ‘information technician’—begin to appear. The job entails calibrated, duplicated, formatted writing; the triumph of changing opinions and ‘buzz’; confusion in communication; and marketing at every stage.”

If this is not bleak enough, the horror deepens upon consideration that the management of journalism has been usurped by people whose chief concern is profit. “Some start-ups even propose automating editorial tasks,” the duo continues. “The Chicago-based company Journatic has assembled an immense database of available news items and identified all the sources of fresh news (businesses, enterprises, associations, police reports, etc.), which it uses to provide ‘content’ in the form of thousands of articles a month to media companies and marketers. The company’s software continuously scans its database and the flow of news from its sources to produce articles that a battery of editors, English speakers who often reside in developing countries, rewrite for a few dollars, sometimes appending to their articles vaguely Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms.”

If you can’t guess at the economic fate of this new breed of “journalist,” Journatic’s founder is available to help: “If we reprocess a press release,” he is quoted as saying, “then why would anyone pay reporter-type wages to do that?”

Go to the economics department of Journatic’s nearest university and say that out loud and my money says you’ll hear restrained murmurs of approval. From the second half of the 20th century on, economists at the University of Chicago have spread the notion that driving wages down to their minimum possible value is both a social necessity and a moral good. They hail from the same class of experts that tells us that all journalism is now wholly dependent on advertising. It includes the CEOs of companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter—firms that make much, if not the bulk of their revenue on advertising. Young audiences, they say, will never pay for information they can get for free elsewhere. Common experience suggests they are right. But it’s not the case for all readers, Beccaria and Saint-Exupéry respond, and where it is true, it is largely because enough publishers have bought into the idea that generic, “content”—rather than complex, insightful reporting, is what readers want.

The success of magazines like XXI challenges this claim. In a letter in the October issue of Harper’s Magazine, Publisher John R. MacArthur praised Beccaria and Saint-Exupéry for defying “the conventional wisdom about the free-content model and [turning] XXI into the most dynamic, and perhaps the most profitable, new magazine on the European scene.”

“Although it does have a website,” MacArthur writes, offering a fuller sketch of the magazine, “you cannot read XXI on a computer—you must buy the print edition for the equivalent of about twenty dollars a copy at a bookstore or get it through the mail. The quality of XXI is guaranteed not by fickle marketers suffering from short attention spans but by faithful readers whose powers of concentration—whose appreciation for the elegant sentence and the hard-earned insight—have survived the onslaught of the Web’s unedited mediocrity.”


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