Right after Hugh Hefner’s death was revealed the other day, posts began appearing in my Facebook feed. They came in a variety of flavors, but the most oft-repeated went something like this:
“Everybody claimed they read Playboy for the articles, but I really did.”
I won’t call these nostalgic Playboy readers liars. There’s no question that Hefner published good writing and paid his authors well. He paid his naked ladies well, too, along with the photographers who shot them and the graphic artists who touched them up. Everybody at Playboy did well in the good old days. Hugh Hefner had come up with a recipe for fabulous success: quality journalism decorated with high-end nudes. Back then, newspapers did well, too. Everybody bought them, and no one had to make up excuses about why. It was for the articles, of course. What else?
Well, there was something else, but nobody began to admit it until there was no other choice. Just like Hefner, newspaper publishers had been depending on a lucrative union. Quality journalism was not fully underwritten by the people who read the articles. Something less prestigious but wonderfully profitable paid the bills: advertising.
Nothing cracked for Playboy and the news moguls until the Internet came along. It didn’t take long for all those guys who were subscribing to Playboy “for the articles” to discover that the Web was much better at delivering the content they supposedly didn’t care about. Similarly, when sites like Craigslist appeared, people saw no point in paying a newspaper when they could sell their old Chevys and locate their lost pets for free. And that was only the beginning. Entire industries gave up their long-standing advertising accounts with newspapers. When was the last time anyone looked inside a newspaper to rent an apartment or buy a house?
Playboy is still around, apparently still delighting the half-dozen men who read it for the articles. While its dysfunction may not be terminal, I’m willing to predict that it won’t rise again on its own.
I’m rooting for the newspapers. I want to see quality journalism not only survive, but flourish. News outlets have a much better chance than a withered old men’s rag of finding new partners to generate revenue. I consider myself a tiny one of those partners. I’m willing to pay — and I do pay — for good journalism.
I read The New York Times for the articles. I really do.