On this week’s episode we hear from The New Republic’s Literary Editor Laura Marsh. She tells us about what makes working in an audio format especially rewarding, discovering famous literary contributors, and why non-news content is such a good touchpoint for audiences.

In the news roundup the team discuss why Facebook’s outage isn’t necessarily the best news for publishers, the needless and futile rollercoaster of Ozy Media, and why The Daily Mail thought it could use a lawyer’s tweets as a column. We somehow forgot that next week is our 200th episode.

The full transcript is live here, or see below for some highlights:

Laura’s take on book reviews

If we were publishing a book about the New Deal, I wouldn’t necessarily want the reviewer to go through and explain what the author of the book does well in each chapter. I would like them to write an essay about the New Deal, and why it’s interesting to think about it now, and to engage with other views of that to give the reader a sense of, what is the debate about this subject? And how can I navigate through it?

The book is going to be part of that – you’re not going to ignore the thing you’re reviewing. But the way I see magazines at their most exciting is that you can give the reader a window onto a whole world of debate and discussion that they might not otherwise have access to.

Finding famous contributors

Some of those really famous contributors, when they were writing for The New Republic, were not well known. Some of them were, but some of them were at the beginning of their careers.

A really good example is that in the 1950’s, before he was famous – before he published Portnoy’s Complaint, before he published Goodbye, Columbus – Philip Roth was the film reviewer of The New Republic. No one had ever heard of him. This was not a big deal to hire Philip Roth as the film reviewer, this was like trying out some kid and seeing like, maybe he’ll be good at it.

So that’s one of the interesting things about working in a magazine that’s been around for over 100 years is that you get to see, oh, this was what a famous writer did when they were just starting out.

Keeping print fresh

One of the difficulties of publishing monthly rather than daily is that you can’t predict what is going to happen in between writing your piece and publishing it. So you have to keep trying to get ahead of events or look ahead.

I think the result of that is that you try to come up with ideas that are big enough to last a bit longer. If they’re not quite evergreen, at least they might have six months’ lifespan instead of a one week lifespan.

That’s a really useful way to think about stories, and push yourself to find the biggest frame that you can for a story.

Storytelling in writing and audio

The way you tell a story in a podcast is a bit different than in a print magazine. When I’m editing for the print magazine, or writing, I’m trying to make these dense sentences have real economy with the wording so that there’s no repetition, and everything is so tight.

Definitely on the podcast, you want to make sure that people actually hear what you’re saying; saying things in the simplest way and trying to keep repeating them so that the point gets across. It definitely is a slightly different mode of telling a story.

Main story

Facebook has NOT had a good week (again). CBS News aired an interview with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who was employed at the platform from 2019 on its misinformation team.

  • She stated that the company is aware of and capable of doing more to curb disinformation on its platforms, but chooses not to do so in service of engagement and advertising revenue: “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they’ll click on less ads, and [Facebook] will make less money.”
  • She cited the Capitol Hill riots in Jan as an example of where a lack of consideration around safety concerns had helped fuel the violence – employees had warned internally of issues but were ignored: “There were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. Facebook over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money.”
  • She says no one at Facebook is malevolent, but the incentives are misaligned: “Facebook makes more money when you consume more content. People enjoy engaging with things that elicit an emotional reaction. And the more anger that they get exposed to, the more they interact and the more they consume.”
  • Facebook pushed back saying that the suggestion they do nothing isn’t true: “If any research had identified an exact solution to these complex challenges, the tech industry, governments and society would have solved them a long time ago.”

Then it got worse:

  • The system went down (JUST HOURS after Frances Haugen’s interview) for over six hours, taking out Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.
  • While Facebook was down traffic to publisher sites increased dramatically. Pornhub also saw a huge spike in traffic, which backs up Adam Tinworth’s assertion that we’re in an attention economy and wouldn’t necessarily be the sole beneficiaries of any permanent outage.
  • It’s alright for those of us that use it just as a social network, but for a growing proportion of the world (especially outside the US), Facebook’s properties are now critical infrastructure and essential business tools.

News in brief:

  • Ozy Media is not dead after all. Founder Carlos Watson gave an interview just days after telling employees that the company was closing, saying that the announcement was ‘premature’. ‘At our best, this will be our Lazarus moment,’ he told CNBC. No details of just how he plans to do this without investors, and a pending FBI investigation have been released.
  • Google is releasing a new product in association with News Revenue Hub to help newsrooms with technology that makes it easier to get funding. News Revenue Engine will “make it easier than ever for mission-driven digital news outlets to steward and convert casual readers into sustaining donors.” It’s essentially a set of marketing tools which make it really easy to ask for money from readers; something Google are calling a ‘contribution management system’.
  • The Spectator more than doubled its pre-tax profits in 2020 as a 40% boost to subscriber numbers balanced out challenges to other parts of the business from the pandemic. The publisher saw newsstand sales fall by 23%, advertising sales fall by 17% and physical events impacted, but sponsorship was made up through podcasts, virtual events and their new online TV show.
  • YouTube is looking to hire its first executive focused on podcasts. The platform is already one of the top destinations for podcast listeners, with a growing number of podcasters filming whilst recording episodes.
  • The Daily Mail turned a British human rights lawyer’s tweet thread into a column, making it look like he’d written for the paper. Embedding tweets is standard practice, but to turn them into a fully written piece accompanied by a headshot is going a ‘bit far’. He managed to get them to pay him £250 after he suggested they take into account that what they’d done was ‘probably illegal’.
  • VICE is reporting that the BBC is set to quit a diversity scheme set up by LGBTQ+ support network and charity Stonewall. The VICE report states that LGBTQ+ members of staff at the BBC are “horrified” and “super scared” by the planned withdrawal, which could come as soon as next week.
  • Meredith is set to be acquired by Dotdash in a cash-only deal. The publisher of People, EW and other titles would fall under the digital publishing division of Barry Diller’s IAC holding company, under a proposed takeover deal. The terms give the deal an enterprise value of about $2.7 billion.

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