in journalism, TTOTD

Words can be forever

MTV News announced today that it would lay off a bunch of writing staff and freelancers, and pivot towards short-form video content. It joins many other media companies who’ve recently said they’d be doing the exact same thing, including Mashable, Vocativ, and Upworthy.

My heart goes out to those who’ve been laid off. But I’m also concerned about the state of online media, which seems to temporarily think video will bring in the CPM rates and revenues that it’s constantly in search of. The money behind online video is very frothy and enthusiastic right now, but that froth will give way to a couple of harsh realities: namely, that it’s costly to produce video at scale (arguably even more costly than writing), and that there aren’t enough people out there to consume all this video to make it worth it.

In a spectacular Twitter thread tonight, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz laid out an impassioned argument for the written word. Rather than embed all the tweets, I’m just going to reproduce the text here. It deserves to be read in its entirety in one flow (But Matt: if you’re reading this and want me to take this down in favor of the tweets, just hit me up):

I rarely watch videos instead of reading articles/summaries. Who is watching all the video that is supposedly such a gold mine? Every day I see a link that gets me interested, then I click over and see it’s video only, no text, and I don’t watch. I see how hard video teams work to produce sixty seconds of professional quality content. How are these economics going to create profit? I’ve written/edited/produced/narrated literally hundreds of hours of video content. That shit takes forever to do well. It’s really hard. Even when I’m partnered with an editor (usually @stevensantos) video is time consuming. And Steven works fast as hell. Hours to make 5 mins.

The new god video is a time suck. It’s as if we’ve been told that we should stop typing and start carving pictograms into stone tablets. Video content that is widely viewed and easily monetized tends to be shit somebody captured on their cell phone. Not slickly produced stuff. One of the reasons I’ve moved away from video and back toward the written word is, I reach more people and I get to have a life. People still quote/link to/argue about pieces I wrote 15, 20 years ago. With a few conspicuous exceptions, my videos have not endured.

That’s not to downplay the quality of the video essays. I know I did (or enabled) excellent work in that form. But there are other factors. Viewing software evolves. Platforms die off. Media outlets close without notification. Some of my best stuff won’t play anymore. Meanwhile, a PDF somebody made of my capsule review of SPHERE from 1998 has been read probably 100s of thousands of times.

All this is a big part of the reason I’ve focused so much on books. Whether they sell well or poorly, the books endure. They can be found. I’m thinking about writing some short chapbook-type paperbacks on various subjects, print-only. I don’t care how many copies they sell. I want to build an actual library of stuff that won’t be rendered unplayable/unlistenable/unlinkable by technological/economic shifts.

This is all the result of soul-searching, the upshot of which is, I’d rather be cherished by a few than skimmed/clicked by many. Fuck that. The digital-era iceberg is melting and eventually every critic, including me, will get pushed into the sea. Nobody can stop that, probably. At some point even legacy outlets might decide there’s no point paying writers. And I’ll be photocopying stuff at Staples and selling it.

My first publication was a comics newsletter that I edited and published myself, on my elementary school mimeograph machine. I know of at least 3 schoolmates who saved copies, plus copies of plays I wrote in 4th/5th grade that they acted it. This stuff MATTERS. If you are a writer you have stories like this. People save words that matter to them for whatever reason. Books. Printouts. Letters. Cards.

Obviously I am not an expert in the monetization of video content/branded content/sponsored etc, so take this with a grain of salt, but: It sickens me to see the entire online “content machine” treating words as they were nothing more than dirt accumulating on a video screen.

The word “content” sickens me. And “post.” Call your work articles, essays, reviews, stories. You are artists! Respect yourself. I’m about two Tweets away from wandering the neighborhood with a sandwich board ringing a bell, so that’s it for tonight. Peace.

I don’t agree with everything here (for instance, I don’t look down my nose at the concept/terminology of “content”) but I agree with the main thrust of Matt’s argument: “The digital-era iceberg is melting, and eventually every critic will get pushed into the sea.”

There is simply too much supply and not enough demand for media companies to be able to pay hundreds of people a living wage (plus benefits) to write movie reviews or TV recaps for a living. And when the economics stop making sense, how will your work endure? Seitz argues that physically printed books, or more longform material of some sort, are a good way to go. I’m inclined to agree.

I’d better get to work.

  • Thank you for putting these tweets together Dave. I’m not familiar with Matt’s writing, but it’s interesting to think about what he’s talking about.

    I agree with you about the lexicon. Content feels like a general overarching term across mediums. If I write, make videos, and create podcasts, I’d lump them all in together as “content.” For posts, I think that’s another term that is overarching. Articles, essays, reviews, etc. are all types of posts.

    On the longevity of the printed word, I can agree with Matt’s sentiment, but if they are self-published books, having digital versions that are self-hosted or submitted to the Internet Archive have a good chance of surviving for decades (hopefully centuries). The benefit to digital words is the increased accessibility with translation tools and screen readers, plus it being instantly available without having to have it shipped.

    In regards to video taking over, I’ve been finding myself watching more and more videos I instead of reading. Its situational and mood based, where if I’m on the bus I’ll read saved articles. If I’m at home, I’d almost always prefer to watch a video. It largely feels more personal with there being audio and video of the person, plus whatever images they add in. I find that I connect and comprehend video better.

    I’m interested in what the state of video hosting is in 40~50 years. Having YouTube be the sole major played versus distributed written and audio content is very strange.

    While the iceberg may be melting for critics, I do think that Patreon and other similar approaches has the potential to have critics keep doing what they love. They’d have less potential support on a technical and editorial level, but I think that has a lot of potential (especially in regards to connect with a critic’s biggest followers).