New York Review of Books Celebrates 50th Anniversary With Discussion on Future of Literary Journalism
Is Editing a Lost Art in the Digital Age?
On Wednesday, April 3, in the New York Public Library‘s Celeste Bartos Forum, the New York Review of Books, in collaboration with the Cullman Center for Scholars, marked its 50th anniversary with a panel discussion featuring some of the publication’s most renowned writers. Ian Buruma, Andrew Delblanco, Alma Guillermoprieto, Zoë Heller, and moderators Robert Silvers and Josephy Lelyveld discussed the future of literary journalism.
With print publications dying a slow death and the internet emerging as the wave of the future in journalism, the speakers addressed the implications of this transition. Surprisingly, the scholars were far less curmudgeonly than one might expect when it came to technology, although they had a few choice words for such modern staples as Twitter and the Huffington Post. That being said, they were far more interested in pondering the implications of new journalistic formats than lamenting the past.
Although ostensibly about the future of literary journalism, the panelists focused less on the situation of writers and more on the changing role of the editor. While the ability to self-publish on the internet has given voice to a new generation of journalists, it has also diminished the importance of a strong guiding hand. Bloggers and online publications are often as, if not more concerned, with SEO and generating traffic than the content they produce.
As the embodiment of the old-school editor, involved in micromanaging and steering the direction of his publication, The New York Review of Books, moderator Robert Silvers loomed large over the proceedings. The panelists attested to the importance of having a strong, knowledgeable editor to enforce standards of quality and push writers to hone their craft, whether by pointing out redundancies or calling attention to cliched phrases.
Today, publications are often “edited” by committees who select what stories to promote based on perceived marketability, rather than literary worth or newsworthiness. In addition, the attention span of an online audience is considerably less than that of those reading a newspaper, literary journal or magazine. Therefore, publications tend to de-emphasize the long form article in favor of easily-digestible factoids.
Despite these drawbacks, the panelists remained guardedly optimistic about the future of journalism. As long as there are writers passionate about writing and editors to oversee them, quality journalism is here to stay, even if it is more dispersed and less profitable. The discussion did not yield any easy answers, but by telling hard truths, it went a long way towards highlighting the challenges journalists must face and, with hard work and ingenuity, overcome.