It’s cold and lonely on the digital side


Image via Obsessable


I’ve been at the new job since November 8 and while I’m absolutely thrilled to have found an editorial gig in this environment, something is already gnawing at the edges. The problem isn’t really a problem per se. It’s just that I’m on the digital side of a print publication and for the first time in my nascent career, I slightly mind not writing for print.

I’ve seen my byline in print before so I know what it feels like. I’ve also greatly enjoyed writing for an online audience. But as a friend who works for a digital-only publication said, a Google Alert isn’t quite as thrilling as a print byline. I ruefully agreed.

As I type these words, I can hardly believe I feel this way. If you know me even a little bit, you know that I’m a huge proponent of digital. I think about print vs. digital media constantly. I can’t even begin to link to all the things I’ve written about this here. Go to the little search box all the way down on the page and search for keywords like “online” “news” “digital” “print” and “media.” You’ll find a lot there. 

And yet… print still feels weightier, more substantial, more meaningful. I don’t want it to feel that way, but it stubbornly does.

I could see another friend nodding along to my complaints when we chatted about this online. She too works on the digital side of a print publication and she is also responsible for their social media efforts. “Sometimes I feel left out of what’s going on,” she said. “And I feel overwhelmed.” Sure, these are the feelings of one person, but I think it means something that it’s precisely how I feel. It’s not approximately how I feel. It’s 100% exact.

Why is this so?

A full year ago, I was already starting to sense this problem and some of the reasons. Print makes more money than the online product and that’s literally and figuratively the bottom line. As long as this continues to be true, print will feel more important and be treated as such within an organization and outside of it. But print revenues are dropping, even for the New York Times. And an exaltation of digital still seems to come at the expense of print, even for the New York Times. I know that there are people looking to the future and working to change the way things are done, but it still seems agonizingly slow. As David Carr recently wrote:

The reason that newspapers put all the white paper out on the street is that we get a lot of green paper back in return.

Don’t misunderstand me by the way. I’m extremely happy at my job. I have autonomy, the full support of my superiors and great co-workers. There are many challenges and I am eager to meet them. There is room for tremendous growth and I look forward to being an integral part of it. This feeling, this slight discomfort is technically no one’s fault. It’s Just The Way Things Are.

Still, I’m trying hard to understand why I have these feelings. Part of it has to do with this. The digital realm is indeed a great equalizer. No one cares if you’re a full-time, paid employee or a lone blogger. What matters is the content. I used to revel in this when I was a blogger and beholden to no one. Now that I’m the former (a full-time staffer), the view is a bit different. I still love that the Internet is very anarchic and wary of authority by its very nature. But I’m suddenly very aware that in that environment it’s a bit more fun (though not as lucrative) to be on the outside. It’s easier to push for change outside of the system than within it. That, I believe, is an iron-clad rule that is true in politics, media and many other areas of human endeavor. 

I’ll tell you what would be really nice. It would be nice if publications were digital-first, whether or not they issued a print product. Right now, we still seem to be farther from that than we should be and I’m far from the only one who’s deeply frustrated. To the detriment of both print and online, the two are still seen as separate products. Organizations seem to lack the workflows and even the vocabulary to make the change to digital-first.

If I’m wrong and someone is doing this really well, please clue me in. The only thing that ever comes to mind for me is The Atlantic. I’m a print subscriber so I see both the print and digital product and I have to say that both are wonderful. One doesn’t infringe on the other and the quality of the work is excellent in both mediums. Still, I don’t necessarily see a linkage between the two. If I saw the website only, would I know that it’s also a print magazine? If I saw only the print edition, would I know they have a website as well? I can tell you that for at least a full year, the answer to the first question for me was no. I had been enjoying the website for quite a while without knowing that this was actually a print magazine. 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that many journalists and writers of the techie persuasion are going to work for, well, tech start-ups or starting their own media companies or news websites. As Dave Winer (one of my favorite people writing online) noted

If you’ve created too complex a world, the next generation will just create a new one that’s simpler. One that they understand and you don’t.

The “complex world” is the current media landscape and the new one that’s being created is all too often not inside established news organizations.



  1. Anonymous December 1, 2010

    I think one of the reasons for what we might call “the pleasure differential” between seeing our names in print v. on the web is that we know that a print (or any broadcast) byline is a proxy for attention: we know a lot of people will see it.

    On the web, that might be true, or it might not. We might have an audience of millions or be lobbing a bottle into the ocean with some pixels in it.

    The difference? If we’re not publishing for our own sites, we rarely have access to metrics — we can’t see the realtime feed of traffic, links, mentions.

    You don’t see them because it’s difficult to distribute access to site metrics across a lot of people, especially when those people were freelancers. But a lot of smart, new publications actually use those metrics to drive how much writers are paid (see Nick Denton).

    I bet if you could see who’s watching it would be a lot more fun, and you’d be a lot more likely to stay engaged with a piece after it ran. I would. What do you think?

  2. Anna Tarkov December 1, 2010

    Lisa, you won’t find me disagreeing with anything you said (other than the attention-seeking of a print byline perhaps; in my experience, it’s usually not the disposition of most print reporters).

    We actually get our metrics here at Time Out Chicago and have access to them anytime. So that part is a-ok. I don’t know if freelancers get them (probably not), but they’re probably not asking for them either (if I were to guess).

    As for staying engaged with a piece after it runs, I can’t speak for others but I have no problem with this :) I’m a hard-core content promoter so I remember everything I’ve ever written or in this case, everything my publication has ever done in print or online. So I’m pretty engaged with the content, to say the least.

    Maybe the trouble for me is that it’s hard to make the transition from being a blogger and being able to write anything I please to having to fit myself into an established editorial mold. Maybe that’s the real issue. In this case, I guess Jay Rosen is right when he says that bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal “other.” Having been on both sides, I think it’s totally true.

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