General interest is out, niche is in – according to an article in The Atlantic on why the Economist is thriving while Time and Newsweek fade. "The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009." Michael Hirschorn describes how the Economist (by accident or design) more or less ignored the online revolution and the desperate urge to be "relevant" on the web, and has hence remained a valuable print product – valuable that is to readers and to the owners, an enviable double-whammy for publications these days. The Economist is not innovative or intellectual, according to Hirschorn: "The “leaders,” or main articles, tend to “urge” politicians to solve complex problems, as if the key to, say, reconstituting the global banking system were but a simple act of cogitation away. A typical leader, from January, on the ongoing Gaza violence was an erudite, deeply historical write-around on Arab-Israeli violence that ended up arriving at the same conclusion everyone else arrived at long ago: Israel must give up land for peace. The science-and-technology pages tend toward Gladwell-lite popularizations of academic papers from British universities." However, the magazine cleverly distils the world into a compact survey every week – so you really can keep up with what is going on everywhere. (The other publication that is succeeding for similar reasons is The Week, an addictive digest of everything but without any orginal content.) "Knowing what and who you are, and conveying that idea to an audience, is the only way to break through to readers ADD’ed out on an infinitude of choices."
Along similar lines, here's a video of Christopher R.Weingarten talking about music criticism and the web at the "140 characters" conference in New York a few days ago. It's an entertaining rant, making the point that using Twitter (etc) to find information relevant to you is the problem, not a solution, because all you find is what you already know. He writes music reviews on Twitter, and says he makes an effort to make every one poetic and infomative. His line is: don't just say "I like/hate this" and make it about you, in common with everyone else on Twitter, but be a critic, let people know the "why and the how" – there is enough room in 140 characters to elaborate and have good writing, and that way you might actually discover something new rather than following the bland majority. Those of us who read and review books know this already (the principle, rather than the bit about the 140 characters!), but I think it might be news to a few.