Gourmet vs. All Things Considered: The anthropological edition

When I’m the voice of moderation, you know you’re in trouble.

Kelty has already posted a somewhat splenetic response to the latest missive from Bill Davis, but for people who didn’t get the memo (literally) I wanted to take this opportunity to explain why the American Anthropological Association is like Gourmet magazine.

Bill Davis, the executive secretary at the AAA, spent most of his piece focusing on the AAA’s failed business model, describing a number of things that won’t keep the AAA’s financial boat afloat: author-pay models, embargo periods on journals, and large amounts of federal funding. I’m glad that Bill agrees with us in the Open Access movement that none of these things will work — although I’m a little unsure who he thinks he is disagreeing with. Is there someone out there who believes the government was going to dump tons of free money on us? Or that authors have thousands of dollars lying around to pay the costs of publishing their articles? And how much of the Mellon Foundation’s money was spent figuring this out? Ah, the joys of an agile, responsive, efficient organization.

At any rate, the real kicker comes at the end of the piece, when Davis writes that he’s got to balance the AAA’s publications budget even as he “engage[s] with a world that expects scholarly content to be “free.”” Reading between the lines, one gets a sense that Davis — like many career bureaucrats — considers himself on a weary, never-ending crusade to save his institution from its own members. “Look,” Davis seems to be saying, “it costs US$5,500 to publish an article in American Anthropologist. Do you think money grow on trees? Selling our content is the only way to go.”

It’s a compelling argument — especially if you don’t notice the fact that the one variable which never changes in the AAA’s equations is production cost. What if we could find a way to cut costs and make MAQ cheaper to publish? What if instead of costing five thousand dollars an article it cost, say forty six cents an article to publish?

Luckily, we don’t have to imagine what this would be like because it has already happened.

After fighting a losing battle inside the AAA to reform the journal Museum Anthropology, Jason Baird Jackson began publishing an open-access alternative called Museum Anthropology Review. As he tells it:

At the time… a single page of Museum Anthropology… cost about $202 to publish… At this rate, an article cost about $5000 (pre-subsidies) to publish… in spring 2007, the Council for Museum Anthropology was loosing about $79 per page. Museum Anthropology Review began publishing–using the same editor, the same peer-review community, the same university subsidies, the same computer, the same office, and the same file cabinet–at an out of pocket cost of less that 42 cents per article. In contrast to Museum Anthropology, Museum Anthropology Review was (and is) available freely to anyone able to muster an internet connection. Most contributions to Museum Anthropology Review have now been accessed thousands of times by readers from most corners of the globe.

What is the secret to Jason’s success? What is the difference between the money-loosing, expensive Museum Anthropology and low-cost, open access Museum Anthropology Review? The same difference, it turns out, between Gourmet and All Things Considered.

Gourmet is one of the oldest, most prestigious magazines in the food world. Or was — since it has just ceased publication. What was the problem? The magazine was expensive to produce, and in a world where food news and recipes are available on the Internet, no one was willing to pay for it. It is a familiar story in print journalism: the old business model of selling paper copies of your publications just doesn’t work in an online world. Condé Nast, the publisher, simply had to cut its losses.

Sound familiar? It should — it’s the AAA’s business model, but with more glossy photos of heirloom tomatoes.

Now let’s consider All Things Considered, the flagship show of National Public Radio. It’s an award-winning program that produces high-quality journalism. The color stories drive me nuts personally, but I know a lot of people love them. How much does a subscription to All Things Consider cost? Nothing. The show is free. And its not just free — it’s available in every conceivable form: broadcast, podcast, on the web, on your mobile phone, you name it. How much do they charge for the show? Nothing.

In fact, while traditional media is crumbling all around us, NPR has flourished, expanding in size, exploring new outlets like social media, twittering like crazy, and turning its music column into a full-fledged music-discovery and review website. Or so I’ve been told — I pretty much just listen to the radio show.

The things that make NPR successful are the things that make Museum Anthropology Review successful: an organization that builds its budget around its values rather than the other way around; successful innovation which  attracts smart, ambitious employees. Charitable foundations recognize NPR and work to support it, just as Museum Anthropology Review is subsidized. And, of course, donations and volunteer labor from people who want to support a good cause.

Of course, not all publications are Museum Anthropology Review (let alone NPR!), but a whole lot of them are like Gourmet. Homesteading on the electronic frontier is grueling work. But what is the alternative? I ask because there is one point on which I am in agreement with Bill Davis: As long as the AAA keeps on with business as usual while the rest of the world is changing around it, it will find itself with its back increasingly against the financial wall.  The difference between the AAA and Condé Nast is that the AAA has averted a total budget melt-down by partnering with Wiley to publish its journal. It’s a temporary reprieve, however, and the trend lines are not going to start going up any time soon. Mark my words: what started out as a joint venture in which the AAA was a junior partner is going to end up the academic equivalent of sharecropping. And it’s not going to take long.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

12 thoughts on “Gourmet vs. All Things Considered: The anthropological edition

  1. So here’s an interesting feature of the economy of print magazines (file under: too much information about Kelty). I subscribe(d) to the following: Gourmet, Saveur, Bon Appetit, La Cucina Italia and The London Review of Books. One of these magazines has incredibly lousy recipes. The only reason I have subscriptions to any of them is that my daughter’s daycare has some kind of payola scheme going where the more print magazines I subscribe to, the more money is returned to the school to buy paste and guinea pig feed. Given the option of a year’s subscription to Anthropology and Humanism, I probably would have snapped at the chance, but alas, the AAA is not in this particular racket.

    Regardless, Gourmet was, by leaps and bounds, the best of the lot. It had a real editor (Ruth Reichl), it had sumptuous photography, it had travel writing, it had difficult to make recipes and sometimes difficult to read articles, and it didn’t americanize international cuisine in the recipes. The others all suffer from some version of these problems. My point is just that in Conde Nast’s world, the decision to cut Gourmet had nothing to do with its quality, only with its revenue. If I recall correctly, they cut two (2), count them, two bridal magazines, and still had a third that they kept. If he AAA followed this logic, I shudder to think what it would mean for the quality of research in our field.

    By contrast, I find All Things Considered to be almost completely devoid of anything interesting… though I do find out whose countries are flooding and which stocks are tanking when I wouldn’t otherwise. Which is just a way of saying that the revenue/value equation you speak of is never transparent, and that lots of high quality things are subsidized by the sale of low-quality, high-margin things. I’d really rather not have a world full of All Things Considered but no Gourmet. For me, Gourmet represents the best of the AAA publications.

    but then again, here is what happens:
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129545911

  2. You make a false statement, though. ATC is not free. In fact, it is supported by your and my federal tax dollars. It is also supported by the millions of viewers who pledge money to their individual PBS stations and networks who then pay for the right to broadcast ACT over the airwaves. It is also supported by advertising dollars from corporations who post ads on their website and during their on air content.

  3. I’m struggling a bit with Gourmet vs. ATC comparison. A big part of the problem with Gourmet was social relevance. They had great photos, but the magazine was rather out of touch with the way most people cook with and even think about food. I could imagine comparing Gourmet and Cook’s Illustrated, however. Christopher Kimball, editor and founder of Cook’s, wrote a compelling editorial about why he thought they succeeded while Gourmet failed. Cook’s went with a no-advertising, all subscription model. Their recipes, while not always easy, are written in a unique style that you simply cannot replicate by a simple google search. Cook’s always adds dimension to the preparation process that is thoughtful, detailed and well-studied. He basically raises the point that the problem of a business model inevitably has to point to the purpose of a magazine or journal. The two must be intimately related. For Kimball, describing the world of food, the stakes are a matter of culinary expertise in a world where everyone claims expertise in food (we all eat it, after all, and nearly anyone can, and has, started a food blog). I’m not sure that Kimball’s hard line goes the same for anthropology, but it’s interesting to at least reflect on this alternative viewpoint. Quoting Kimball:

    To survive, those of us who believe that inexperience rarely leads to wisdom need to swim against the tide, better define our brands, prove our worth, ask to be paid for what we do, and refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice. Google “broccoli casserole” and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing. The world needs fewer opinions and more thoughtful expertise — the kind that comes from real experience, the hard-won blood-on-the-floor kind. I like my reporters, my pilots, my pundits, my doctors, my teachers and my cooking instructors to have graduated from the school of hard knocks.

    see: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/08/opinion/08kimball.html

  4. I really appreciate you taking up this issue and directing us to such important sources.

    It seems to me that even more interesting than the per-article cost is the number of downloads. According to Davis’ post, in 2009 there were 195,000 downloads of content from the American Anthropologist across all years. Only 10% were of content from 2009.

    That doesn’t capture total usage, but it is a significant number. The readership of AAA journals is very modest (as are most scholarly journals). We’re talking about 500 downloads per day, worldwide. The modal article in AA has a readership of only a few hundred people (many get the paper journal, but few read every article outside their field).

    The system survives because AAA publications bear the imprimatur of guild membership. How long will that be true?

    People reading the budget numbers should keep in mind that much of the cost of “online production systems” and “distribution systems” is to maintain access control. Open source solutions exist for journal management, and of course universities may carry site licenses for equivalent products.

  5. You make really great points Rex. I also have to agree with Jason on the fact that ATC is not free. It has a government mandate to be produced, and as a card carrying NPR member, I’ve paid for some of it.
    I think the issue here is the content issue. I ceased renewing my AAA membership, and receiving its journals, the first time I had to pay the non-student rate for it. The AAA is set up, and is run by, and for a particular segment of academics. It’s basically useless to have a membership for anyone else. While the weekend shows on NPR are often unlistenable, the weekday shows have some of the most interesting and topical issues of the day being presented. The corollary is that I have a few years worth of AAA journals in my library, and only ever read a few of the articles. Most of them are boring, arcane, and irrelevant to anyone outside a particular academic niche. I’d rather spend money of a database where I can search for articles that I actually want to read.

    The only business model that is going to lower costs is to increase the economy of scale of the readership. The only way to do that is to get over the almost allergic reaction many anthropologists have towards being more widely relevant. This, in fact, would solve most of the problems that I hear people complaining about on sites like this. Carrying about whether one’s research is useful to anyone else would increase our reputation and increase our demand in the non-academic sector. If that happens, there will be more anthropologists being interviewed and asked to comment in places like ATC, and more mainstream media sources. This will create more jobs, and increase our pay. When that happens in the non-academic sector, then more and better students will flock to the anth dept. which will increase demand, pay and respect for professors. The only reason business profs get paid more and treated better is, because they have options. They don’t have to be there. No one has to take a business course as a core credit. This will increase both AAA membership and the readership of journals, reducing everyone’s cost. I don’t think we can blame anyone but ourselves for this.

  6. Sorry I got Davis’s title wrong… I had originally types “AAA President”….

    I’m not sure that Kelty’s objections _really_ speak to the metaphor I’m using here. The issue is not which of the two publications he personally prefers. The point is just that they both have high production costs, and one was sunk by the business model of its company.

    Jason’s claims make even less sense. I said that All Things Considered is funded through donations, and he thinks I am wrong because…. it is supported by millions of viewers who pledge money to the show. I can’t tell which is more confusing: that pledges and donations are not the same, or whether or not he thinks its possible to watch a radio broadcast.

    Rick is incorrect in saying that NPR has a “government mandate” to be produced, if by mandate you mean “an official order or commission to do something”. NPR is not a government agency and there is no law or ordinance which requires it to exist. It does not receive extensive federal subsidies — 2% of it budget comes from the federal government, mostly in the form of grants that it must apply (and compete) for.

    That there are multiple funding streams for NPR and All Things Considered doesn’t speak against my metaphor — but the many misconceptions regarding the show and its producers may indicate that a central problem in explaining open access to people (and one I didn’t anticipate before reading the comments on this post) is their misperceptions of existing models of open publication.

  7. Rex, the use of the term “government mandate,” was poorly chosen. What I meant was that there was a govenment mandate in the form of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

    You are wrong that 2% of NPR is funded by the government. In some rural and minority sectors it is up to 70% of the funding, according to the 2005 statement you’re quoting from. Otherwise, it’s at least 16% covered by the government (local to federal; including public schools). Then an additional 2% is competed for from public funds, on top of that.
    Up until the 1990’s the majority of funding came from the government. This has never been the case for any AAA journal, as far as I know.

    Perhaps this is nitpicking, I’ll admit. Either way, my case is sound, because NPR only works because it can tie together thousands of small donations from people and companies that derive some type of utility from it. If only a couple of thousand or less people contributed to NPR they’d be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars each, probably. The supply chain is effected in this case by the economy of scale, which is determined by the appeal of the content, and the fact that employees agree to work for a non-profit.

  8. For thinking about non-commercialized forms of open access scholarly publishing, the comparable case of public radio in the United States was evoked in “Anthropology of/in Circulation” in an exchange attributed in the published version to Michael Brown and I. (It might actually have been written by Chris or Rex, I do not remember.) It appears on page 579 of the published version. A search on the article title will get you a copy.

    The key to the analogy is getting over the “problem” of free riders. University support for public radio in the United States is long-standing and sensibly mission-driven. Universities are not the only source of funding for the the local stations that they own, but they provide core staffing and infrastructure for reasons that have long made sense (student training, outreach, public education, self-promotion). Others join in to make the local station better. Local stations become confederated in ways that allow them to create community-source assets like brand identity and national programming. We see similar trends in non-commercial OA. Open Journal Systems as a piece of open source software is just one manifestation of such patterns.

    For commercialized forms of OA, consider the Wiley press release just issued announcing the appointment of a senior person to steward their own OA efforts.

    (I am not including a link because I think urls may be what causes some of my comments to be set aside for moderation, as happened again earlier today.)

Comments are closed.