A Talk with Alexis Madrigal

by James Pabarue:

Courtesy of The Atlantic

As the Internet became an integral part of daily life, print publications endeavored to stay relevant by moving their content online. Much has been said about challenges that the transition to the web creates for magazines and newspapers—most commentators brood over the future of journalism. But in an event hosted by the Yale Law School’s “Law and Media Speaker Series” this past Thursday, senior editor at The Atlantic Alexis Madrigal explained how teams of new media journalists have stopped brooding about the future, harnessed its technologies and begun to shape it.

Madrigal, who is also the author of Powering the Dreaming: The History and Promise of Green Technology, first discussed the importance of understanding the dynamics of online reporting and some fundamental departures from print magazine mentality. “In a print magazine, the entire package matters because people buy the issue,” Madrigal said. “But what matters online is the individual story.” Websites cater more to browsers than to a brand-loyal audience, he admits—“Really, not many come to our homepage to read all of The Atlantic.” The consequence is that there’s less of an emphasis on shaping a cohesive editorial viewpoint. Online, “You’re made to take part in the greater conversation that’s going, and the focus becomes, ‘How do we drive the conversation, regardless of the true value of the things you’re covering.’” Such a primary shift has the ability “to break the natural resilience of your system.”

Magazines promote content by appealing to “communities of online editors” who control the vast majority of web traffic. “Meta-curators have gained power,” said Madrigal. For a story to survive, hits on aggregate sites like reddit.com are necessary. The Atlantic and its competitors drive content to these pages through the work of what Madrigal calls “online ground war teams.” These are not comprised of magazine employees but of “22 or 23 year olds who are signed up as users on Digg or Reddit” who post stories and are compensated with a salary—“something like $45,000.” In The Atlantic’s efforts to capture an audience and keep stories out of “the start-up valley of death,” these paid circulators are indispensible. Still, Madrigal admits that investing to generate interest makes for “a messy situation.”

“I’ve come to moral peace with it a couple ways,” he says. The simple truth is that even though editors and writers want to think it’s their craft that gives them journalistic authority, these days “distribution power is where authority is really derived.” One option would be to redirect the question of distribution to the magazine’s business team. “There are services that will sell you social media space—if it’s a business decision, they would say yes.” The pay-for-popularity maneuvers that The Atlantic and similar magazines employ now are less manipulative than outright purchasing public virtual real estate would be. Also, Madrigal believes that it’s better to get stories from a journal like The Atlantic into the public eye than to let pieces “that support some horrible content farm” overshadow them. If long form, carefully crafted stories are lost, then “the Internet wins.”

Moving on from issues of circulation, Madrigal described the ways that the move to the web has altered the typical journalistic voice. Most striking is the gradual fazing out of “objectivity” as a sacred ideal—“As a hallowed virtue, it has gone away.” But that comment isn’t as damning as it sounds—indeed, “honesty and fairness” still reign supreme in the online arena, but by acknowledging their personal stances online journalists are able to write with a moral purpose. “The Atlantic was founded as an abolitionist magazine,” Madrigal recalls, “and we’ve always been a collection of diverse voices that promote looking at the ‘truth’ of situations in multiple ways.” He compares good writing to a permutation of one of Kransberg’s laws of technology: “it’s neither positive nor negative nor neutral. That’s how I try to approach things.”

As for the future of web reporting, Madrigal has an optimistic outlook that’s backed by numbers. “The way our models are set up now – the fact that we don’t try to rack up page views but try to attract more monthly unique users – it’s going to drive more long form,” he says. “The little stiff doesn’t get you anywhere.” He estimates journal’s top 10 online stories generate 60 to 70 percent of the new traffic, so he thinks editors will focus on those feature pieces. “300-500 word commodity blog posts are useless,” he notes, saying that successful pieces are those with a narrative component that is worthwhile, and there is increasing support for being able to do that.

Ultimately, fear of the online medium – and not the medium itself – is what threatens meaningful journalism. Madrigal is encouraging us to understand new reporting technologies and to cultivate a dynamic set of editorial values and institutional structures that translates onto the web. Every publication’s relevance and respectability is at stake.