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Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and[…]

The business expert describes the state of the art of “magazining” in the digital age.

Question: How do you view the ‘death of journalism’ debate?


Alan Webber: Well, what’s the old line? I have friends on both sides of this issue and I stand with my friends? That’s probably a combat. I don’t have a map to the future, I’m sorry to report, I wish I did. I know that was the only way I got this gig but I left the map in my other suit. I think you can say a couple of things with relative certainly, not about outcomes but about process.

Number one, one of my rules is we’re moving from an either or fast to a both end future and I genuinely believe that some way or another, we will have newspapers and journalism and professional journalists, people who subscribes to the rules of journalism, fact checking and balanced reporting, an attempt to get both sides of the story, an attempt to do deep digs of investigative journalism.

I don’t see any reason to believe that’s going to disappear, it may change, it may morph, it may be under invested in, it may come from different places as it comes right now, I think that’s a deep social need. Secondly, there’s a deep human need and the deep human need is for participation, engagement, checking in, connecting, that’s the technological revolution, it makes it possible for all of us to talk to each other all the time, it may get overloaded, it maybe too much, Ted Levitt used to say anything in excess is a poison, we may have to dial it down but it is true that the notion that there is a private preserve for journalists and the rest of us are consumers is completely false. It goes against Megan Smith’s Rules and it doesn’t work.

So journalists have to let go of the notion that they are the high priest of reporting and truth, they’re really valuable, they do what they do really well and we need them. We also have this public dialogue, this marketplace of interaction and discourse and personal reflection or just absolute time wasting but people want that, the human animal wants to get up in the morning and look around and talk about the weather, how their team did, how they feel, what they did last night that they shouldn’t have done.

A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Tanzania and it was safari by day and a kind of men’s group by night, sitting around the fire. And there was a tribe that we spent a lot of time with called Hadza are. For the last 70,000 years, they’ve been hunting and gathering in Tanzania and they still do it and what I observed was hilarious. The men on the tribe who was with us on this safari, this adventure, at night when we go into our tents and go to bed, they would get into a little pile near the fire and they would get really close like a puppy pile and go to sleep and then couple of hours later, one of them would move and wake up the whole group and you’d hear people coughing and lighting up smokes and moving around and checking in with each other and then the group would quiet down and they go back to sleep, couple of hours later, somebody would cough, somebody would roll over, all of a sudden is talking to each other, “Everybody, everybody okay?”

That is human behavior and it’s primal, you don’t think of it as journalism but it’s a form of journalism, everybody checking in, “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. Here, you want a smoke?”

“Yeah, okay. Everybody okay? All right, go to sleep.”

Get up in the morning, “All right, the weather isn’t so good, where are we going to hunt today?”

These are guys going out with poison arrows and bows to bring back food so it’s pretty elemental but they still check in, that’s what we’re doing.

Now, you may or may not say that’s journalism, it may be simply community interaction but we need both and we need the gossip and the deep digging in the news and the technology exists to do both, the problem is that the old business model of journalism is broken, not journalism, the business model.

So we have to detached the business model from the need for that kind of reporting, analysis, really professional stuff, reinvent a business model that gets us what we need in that zone without somehow disputing the value of all of us tribal people checking in with each to make sure we’re still okay and we’re ready to go hunting for the day. It’s not an either or choice and we have to make peace so that they could live with each other.


Question: How is Fast Company doing?


Alan Webber: Fast Company is doing well. My hat is off to Bob Safien who just won the Editor of the Year Award and the magazine is alive and well and doing good stuff and well, my hands are completely off of it so I don’t have any pride in authorship there.

To get back to, again, to nouns and verbs. Magazines aren’t interesting to me, magazining is interesting and the magazines that are doing magazining are doing well in my mind.

What does that actually mean? Well, as a reader, as a consumer of information, as a curious human being, when I pick up a magazine, I’m not looking for information, information is a commodity, just like news is a commodity, what I’m looking for is a performance, I’m looking on a take on the world, I’m looking for a point of view. One of the rules in “Rules of Thumb” is the notion that content isn’t king, context is king and the point is that there is that content is a commodity, it’s just something that you push through a pipe.

I may or may not buy it, but I certainly am not going to pay top dollar for it and I’m not going to affiliate with it, I’m not going to join the content community but if you got a point of view, if you make sense of the world in a distinctive way, if you’ve got an argument that you want to advance and engage me in, I’m interested in that. I may or may not agree with you but boy, your mind is active and alert and alive on the page and that’s something that’s worth money.

So magazining, to me, is the art of taking a position, staking out a territory, defining a take on the world, bringing your skills of story-telling and performance to an audience or participating audience that wants to engage actively in a dialogue, that’s alive and well and the publications that do that are the ones that are flourishing and the ones that are dwindling really bought into I think a kind of a Darwinian dead-end and is it’s enough to collect information and slam it between covers and now we’re authoritative or we’re the news of the week. The news of the week is very weak and it isn’t going to survive.


Recorded on: April 23, 2009