The Changing Role of Journals and Journalism

The Atlantic has an excellent article up by Franklin Foer on his time as editor of The New Republic and the changing landscape of journalism, one that is dire though it might be understating the problem: we all know about click-bait and such, but knowing people in other sectors online shows how SEOs and such have taken any style out of writing headlines and even stories. (This is why everything on Vox.com is in listicle or clickbait style, even when done by authors who have in the past published well-written long-form articles). In any event, there’s a small point to make about academia from the below:

Makers of magazines and newspapers used to think of their product as a coherent package—an issue, an edition, an institution. They did not see themselves as the publishers of dozens of discrete pieces to be trafficked each day on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Thinking about bundling articles into something larger was intellectually liberating. Editors justified high-minded and quixotic articles as essential for “the mix.”

This is also true of all the journals at which I have edited. While certainly not every issue was dedicated to a theme, one thinks of the particular issue or even yearly volume as a coherent whole. But now that articles are accessed online—and this is well known—it makes less and less sense to me to publish curated, special issues as if we still lived in the days where subscribers read each issue like a mini-book or like I still read The New York Review of Books or like publications: passing through most of the articles one after another. (Or at least feeling guilty that I only read one of those pieces while meaning to go back later.) Now, we search for articles by keywords and it matters little if, say, that article on Angela Davis and critical theory came from one journal or another, or was even part of a special issue on her—since one is searching for a specific look at her work, which the other articles in the special issue might not do. If anything is left, then, for special issues dedicated to an author or subject, it’s simply for the statement that this is important than the coherency of the combination of articles that follows. No doubt, with access to books being moved online by libraries (and by pirate sites), this is already happening with edited volumes (of which I’ve done a bunch myself).

The time will come when we may dispatch with abstracts and the oddly old apparatus of journal articles (why all this work on footnoting the publisher and city of the publisher, etc., of the single edition of books whose info is widely available?) and start publishing “articles” that mirror the more popular formats we find in the journalism we are all reading, especially when our own version of SEO (citations) is a metric used for tenure, promotion, departmental funding, and so on. How long before we are publishing articles such as “Top Ten Things Angela Davis got Right about Critical Theory—and Five She Got Wrong”?