What the Fractured Media Landscape Means for Architecture
I’ve been an architect for 35 years, so I receive a lot of magazines, whether I want them or not. I also visit a dozen or more websites, often daily, and have written for ArchNewsNow, Archinect, ArchDaily, and other internet venues, including this one.
After about a decade of turmoil, it feels as if the panic over the collapse of publishing, following the 2008 economic crash, has subsided. Still, many magazines that once were institutions are either dead or zombies. According to Scribblrs.com, there were about 613 million people on the internet in 2000; two decades later, half of the world, 3.5 billion of us, are online. Behavior has changed, but we still want—and, more important, need—journalism.
Before the crash, I wrote for Money and appeared on CNN because—until the insanity of never-ending value growth was revealed to be insane—homes were the juggernaut leading the U.S. economy. The one-two punch of the mother of all bubble bursts and the 21st century version of the Industrial Revolution started the slow death of an analog, paper-based existence for almost everyone in the U.S.
Publishing, of course, will never be the same. The numbers are simply too unyielding. Statistica.com notes that the daily newspaper industry, which once boasted a paid circulation of over 63 million, had fallen to less than 30 million in 2018, and it continues to decline. Forbes says that newsstand sales almost reached $5 billion in 2007—the edge of the cliff, as it turned out—and is now $2 billion and still dropping. But this is not just about the end of paper. According to Thomholland.com, the number of active websites has exploded from 1 million to more 200 million in just 20 years.
Many of us remember both worlds: the midcentury publishing world of paper, and the now-not-so-new-world of digital communication. Rather than live on the internet, those who became architects in the 20th century have a foot in both worlds: I have a Houzz page that I assume is quiet because I give them no money, despite repeated entreaties; I post on Twitter and Instagram, because a decade ago my publisher told me it was necessary; I am active on Facebook, because a friend said to me in 2006 that I had to do it. The New Haven Register, where I write about architecture, created a blog for all of its contributors, and I jumped in a decade ago. This year, I have even won the tiniest award possible in The Architect’s Newspaper.
Over the past five years there seem to be clear lines of journalistic survival. In that mode, two design magazines arrive in my mailbox every month. I get Residential Design (RD) and New England HOME. As with most print magazines, advertising remains paramount, which is why I receive them for free. So there are often “advertising sections” in New England HOME and traditional buildings in the advertisements section of RD, which is part of the AIA’s Custom Residential Architects Network.
Both are beautifully done, and the projects are lovely. Architectonic design is the base aesthetic of RD, decorator/traditionalist that of New England HOME. Neither will publish my work: I am too “traditional” for the former, and do not have the traditional/decorated projects that get published (without me paying for an ad, which I have been asked to do) in the latter.
Part of me longs to have my work in these nice places; part of me knows that will never happen. So what? Shelter magazines always have niche audiences. But things have changed. A dozen years ago, there were more print options and more newsstands. That meant circulations could be in the millions for magazines that featured houses. There were different types of houses, because there were larger audiences with more preferences.
That variety of cost, scale, and viewer fantasies has now migrated to the internet. Houzz and Zillow are, in theory, for homeowners who are looking to redecorate their homes or to find new places to live. Architects are asked to pay Houzz or Porch.com to receive “exposure.” There’s no indication to the random browser (other than tiny type reading “Special Advertising Section” at the top of each page) that the designer of the work they’re viewing has paid for the privilege. And, of course, feature articles about the firms in question are found nearby. This isn’t quite journalism, nor is it press release, either. That may be both its genius and its undoing.
The new technologies have also made the reality of the work presented somewhat ambiguous. RD has a final page, “Parti Shots,” that offers compelling images of homes, often small, with brief, wonderfully crafted descriptions. Despite their apparent beauty, there’s an odd blurring of the real and the rendered. Active verbs are used as if the homes shown are built projects. “We saved 100% of the trees,” says an architect on one project. The rendering shows trees—beautiful, make-believe trees. Has actual construction spared them? We cannot know, as no schedule and few actual details are offered, but the 2020 renderings look astonishingly real. Reality is different now.
Once, editors and writers and art directors and layouts stood between an architect’s work and publication. It’s a now-quaint concept called lead time. Now, if an editor likes what you do, it’s up on a site almost instantaneously. I have no idea if these sites make money, or even if they are intended to. Nor do I have any sense that traditional journalistic/merit based (vs. pay-for play) media is a fruitful way to get work. Twenty-five years ago, one of my projects was a lead story in the New York Times Home section. In a decade of responses I received more than 700 messages (most before the internet). Those contacts netted over 40 jobs, and I have no idea what those projects lead to, but today 90% of our work is word of mouth.
Miraculously, analog communication still occurs. My last book, A Home Called New England, had a small print run, but it’s loved by those who read it to the point of being nominated for a state award. This small exposure in paper contrasts starkly with the open-ended, insanely available world of the last 20 years, where everything is pretty much free, and now available on our phones.
More people, including architects, have turned “vanity publishing” into self-publishing. Technology has empowered everyone, but especially those doing 2D work: writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians. The trick today isn’t getting the work out into the world, but getting properly paid for that work.
All of this is still very much a moving target. I write for Hearst newspapers in Connecticut. They’re attempting to erect an aggressive paywall, so what had been available, for free, now pops up and is then covered by an ask for a subscription. The New York Times has been successful in transitioning to a subscription-based business model, but it’s not clear whether other media outlets have the quality and reach to make that leap.
I hope they do. If they succeed, however, those now brought up with almost infinite free media will need to learn that the internet should ideally be a digital newsstand. In the dead tree era, there were always subscription deals (essentially, giveaways aimed at bolstering circulation). As an architect, at one point I received almost every shelter magazine for free. Nevertheless, there were more publications that had ads and real price tags.
Those prices are being determined right now. I hope all those niches being served in this new world can be sustained, and this platform—as well as the paper ones— will land in a place where the new accessibility is matched by some level of consumer understanding that paying for exposure is not the same as quite the same as earning it.
The collapse of publishing has abated somewhat. Editors and publishers I work with say that focused and targeted journalism has enough audience to generate sales and advertising. The huge websites appear to be flourishing, but they have no singular editorial voice, or even image. Architects once marketed their work as interesting to readers of venues that had images—brands, if you will. Now there are many places to show the work we do, but the audiences are fractured, and the platforms create less impact.
Maybe we’re living in a time where millions, if not billions, of choirs are singing to themselves.
Featured image courtesy of Duo Dickinson Architects.