When Condé Nast announced the demise of Details magazine on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal covered the reasons behind the restructuring. “Many publishers are grappling with declining revenue as marketers continue to pull ad dollars from traditional media such as print to fund their push into digital advertising,” columnist Jeffrey Trachtenberg explained. True. But then he added: “Stories on Details’ [soon-to-be-defunct] website include ‘This Crazy-Looking Hoodie Will Help You Chill Out—for $330’ and ‘What Holiday Bingeing Really Does to Your Body.’ ”
These tacky headlines were clearly meant to seem like evidence of Detail’s journalistic decline—served up as if they could help explain the collapse of the magazine overall. In fact, cherry-picking notably lame or vacuous headlines is a favorite pastime of media critics whenever a publication experiences upheaval. When Newsweek ceased print publication, one writer wrote in Forbes: “Running alongside … [the] announcement on the Daily Beast, a ‘Stories We Like’ sidebar touted titles including ‘What Your Favorite Food Says About Your Sex Life’ and ‘How to Use the Toilet When Your Girl’s Around.’ ” And in a piece about the “fall” of the New Republic in December of 2014, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera recounted a conversation with TNR’s chief executive, Guy Vidra, in which Vidra “suggested that Vox Media was a more appropriate model” than the Atlantic for his revamped magazine. “After we spoke,” reported Nocera, “I went to the Vox website. I scrolled down until I saw a headline that stopped me cold. ‘Everybody farts,’ it read. ‘But here are 9 surprising facts about flatulence you may not know.’ Goodbye, New Republic.”
As they listen for the roar of the doom tornado, journalists tend to adopt a Day-of-the-Dead style bravado. They start dancing on each other’s graves. In a scarily uncertain media landscape, it’s tempting to pluck out a lowbrow headline or a squalid little listicle to illustrate the diminishment of a magazine’s brand. But it’s also misleading and unfair. The New Republic was not in trouble because, editorially, it was following a flatulent pied piper named Vox. It was in trouble because of some fundamental mismanagement and a lack of communication between its owner and its editorial staff. While I understand the desire to apply a lacquer of logic—even poetic justice—to the inscrutable market forces buffeting our industry, taking a few silly headlines and holding them up as a symptom of a bigger trend is too easy. The business-side stuff is what takes actual reporting to understand. Pretty much every online publication occasionally publishes a handful of regrettable pieces (sometimes more); that’s how it goes with hypermetabolic Web writing.
The much-maligned concept of “clickbait” is an increasingly meaningless designation, since every website has to court clicks in order to survive. All too often, quality has nothing to do with viability—just ask Grantland. As media critic Bob Garfield observed when Condé Nast’s beloved Gourmet went dark in 2009, “Your content can be flawless and you can still fail. The Internet has created a nearly infinite supply of content … which leads to declining revenue and declining ad prices. What you have is a spiraling vortex of ruin.”
An honest post-mortem on Details would acknowledge that what makes or breaks a magazine usually falls outside of journalists’ control. Publications’ fates are decided in business meetings between advertisers and sales teams, or by the latest mysterious adjustment to the Facebook algorithm. Plenty of media outlets produce worthy, deeply reported journalism along with inane listicles and dopey round-ups. But as comforting as it is to assume a correlation between content quality and financial failure, we should come to terms with the fact that 90 percent of the media longevity iceberg lurks below the surface.