The answer probably isn’t more NIBs

This depressing thread of Marie Le Conte’s, and the associated Press Gazette story, are familiar.

In early 2005 I was hired as a staff writer at Mobile Communications International magazine, having impressed at the interview by being able to find typos in a pile of galleys. By early 2007 I was ready to move on. I had my reasons. For a start, they had demoted a colleague of mine who was the website editor so they could hire a guy who was pretending to be an Iraq war photographer over his head. I wasn’t particularly pleased about that, especially after we did one of the regular trips to put together the on-site paper for one of the company’s conferences and found that he’d missed his flight. So that left me and one of the production designers to do the whole thing, until he showed up boasting that he’d persuaded South African Airways to refund him anyway and calling himself “The Editor”.

And there was the moment in April of that year when I was walking down Goodge Street in my lunch break in the rain and I was thinking I could get these resoled…or I can wait until payday [squelch]…fuck this shit I need a new job. The immediate pre-crisis labour market was less fun than people now make out. And there were the NIBs. A surprising percentage of our output by word count consisted of news-in-brief items that were basically all either lifted from the competition or recycled from press releases. This didn’t get me down as much as it might have done, as the mag also contained three substantial features, half a dozen serious news-analysis pieces, and a snarky column. But they were always there, often almost a month old as we were after all a monthly.

So that was why I ended up joining Martin Geddes’ startup, which soon wasn’t his any more, and so on and so forth. (When I told my editor I was leaving, I was offered the editorship of a new title, WiMAX Vision, and aren’t I glad I didn’t hop into that already-awash hookpot of a bad idea.)

MCI kept sending me copies of the mag after I left. For a while it continued much the same, but then bad signs began to set in. One of the main feature slots was dropped. The pagination was cut back. The perfect-binding was given up. The news-analysis section was reduced and the word counts trimmed. But all the while, the NIBs kept coming. (As with the mail according to Bukowski, this is the worst thing about them.) So the percentage of the mag devoted to rips and churnalism was rising steadily. This was baffling – if there was anything in MCI you could get for free on the web, old press release stories were just that. That was where we got them, after all.

By the finish it was down to one major feature and not long after that, the waters closed.

Another detail of this story is that all the while there were people two floors up in the building doing roughly the same job for much more money. We occasionally quoted them when we were desperate for copy. They were the analysts, and now I am one. The genuinely interesting point here is that MCI wasn’t giving its content away – the website was subscription only, as was the mag – but it ended up producing something as mediocre as anything available for free, while charging for it.

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