The story of reviewing ‘Myth, Politicians and Markets: the Truth Behind the Free Market’, author Bryan Gould
This column was never published in The Listener. It is a curious story which begins in October 2013 when I was asked to review the book for the magazine – urgently of course, reviews are always required urgently. I submitted it in November. There was no sign of it. When I asked about it in April 2014, I was told ‘soon’, and then came an apology that the editor thought it was out of date. (A book out of date in a year?) However if I wished, I was ‘welcome to adapt the review for a column’. I did, not only adding words (columns are longer than reviews) but extending the content and adapting it to a column format. I submitted it and was told that it would not be published.
Shortly after I was told my column would end. No adequate reason has been given; I acknowledge that a columnist is subject to the behest of the editor who does not have to give a reason. There were mutterings that being lost down the back of the magazine the column was not being reading, although no evidence was given for the claim (or whether that applied to all columns). I am not sure that the Listener even had the data to make an assessment.
There were mumblings that I could do features up front, although there had long been a pattern of asking unqualified and uninformed journalists to write on economics. (I have lost count of the numbers of times I have had to say, following criticism of upfront articles and editorials being ill-informed or with errors, that I was not consulted nor involved.) Since the termination I have not been asked to contribute a feature or do a review.
Among my close, collegial and casual acquaintances there was considerable concern. Some approached the editor directly or through letters, none of which were published. Some said they would not renew their subscription, although I insisted they took that action only if the whole magazine was failing to meet their needs. Some said that my column was the only thing that did – which was flattering; some switched to the TV Guide.
I have no idea how big was the upwelling. The Listener circulation and readership continues to fall, but it has been doing so for some time.
I almost gave up columns altogether, but surprised at the support I got from economists – including some very senior ones – who said they valued its role in the profession, I switched to writing for the Pundit blog. It is probably too soon to say how it has affected the column’s content and approach, but I work to shorter deadlines and am not so constrained by word length. (Over the years my Listener column length was cut by about 25 percent; I notice that I am returning to nearer the older length.)
Intriguingly I am getting more feedback and invitations to contribute on other parts of the media. Perhaps the Listener editor was right; perhaps the back of the magazine was a bit of a ghetto for the informed current affairs contributor although it does not follow that the only solution was termination.
I’m also writing weekly. I was always worried I would not have enough material to write a Listener column weekly (I was never asked to); the worry has proved needless.
If I am asked I explain that, like other media outlets including newspapers and broadcasting, The Listener is struggling. Apparently informed current affairs does not attract advertising. Have a look at the advertisements in whatever you are reading or watching and try to assess who the advertisers are trying to connect with.
It is an international phenomenon. My guess is that the future for those concerned with current affairs analysis will be electronic (although, for some time, there may be some international platforms which will be based on hardcopy publications, such as The Guardian and New York Review of Books). The challenge New Zealand faces is there are so many blogs it is hard to keep up with them all, that entry is free so that quality is variable and – most of all – there is no ‘business case’ (or, jargon free, means of fully financing them, for the platforms have a cost and few bloggers get paid, which does not encourage quality or depth).
Like other media forms – as I write, TV3’s Campbell Alive is under pressure – The Listener has responded by shifting its focus away from serious analysis towards lifestyle issues (think of the attraction to advertisers). It does not even have a Wellington journalist (a parliamentary reporter is not the same thing). The Listener is not the magazine I so happily began contributing to all those years ago.
It was great while it lasted. Let me conclude with some thankyous. I’ll not detail how much I valued the readers or those who have helped with columns. I must mention the subeditors, who I think have a dreadful job, but for four decades they have professionally, with good humour, turned my submitted texts into something for others to enjoy reading. And then there are all the editors who have supported me over the years. Thankyou every one.