The Science of Publishing

Alta publisher Will Hearst proposes a new way of thinking about the content we deliver our readers—right down to the advertisements that appear in our magazine.

Alta's editor and publisher, Will Hearst.
Alta’s editor and publisher, Will Hearst.

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

—Richard Feynman

There is a long-established theory of publishing that the real goal is to attract a vast audience and then assemble, dissect, and merchandise that audience for advertisers.

It’s not exactly wrong. It has worked well for publishers like Facebook who have aggregated an audience on a scale of hundreds of millions. They have developed wonderful technology to attract that audience and partition it into units, which are of economic interest to branding companies, politicians, and state actors.

Lately, even the algorithms of Apple News have detected which kinds of sensational headlines garner clicks—after all, the goal is to attract a big audience. In some ways, these algorithms have rediscovered the insight of H.L. Mencken: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

But what if the publisher’s true goal was momentarily detached from scale—mind you, scale is not a bad thing. What if the publisher’s higher priority was delivering value to a community of readers? What if the economic model was dependent on this community’s satisfaction: their acceptance, enjoyment, insight, and trust?

In this model, publishers are not building a list of names to remarket; they are building a kind of membership. And their members’ willingness to pay determines the outcome of the venture.

We at Alta prefer this second theory. If we fail to satisfy our audience (who are our only customers), then we fail. Our advertising is based on a belief—modeled on Consumer Reports, Patagonia, and the Whole Earth Catalog—that certain products would be of interest to our audience. We invite companies to advertise. In fact, many companies create products and experiences our members would appreciate. But we never charge more than the cost of creating and printing their ad.

This focuses the mind. We are not distracted by scale, clicks, competing with giants, elite demographics, or selling our data to other merchants. We have a simple job: find ideas, writers, and images that energize our audience—the people who have chosen to spend their days in the West. And who have an interest in arts, culture, and invention.

As a quarterly, we cover the past and the future but not the present. The internet and the dailies do a much better job there. We ask: How did we get here? Where might we go? But what is happening right now…we leave that to them.

Richard Feynman was always skeptical of the established order, and he would have recognized that publishing, like any business, is governed by the science of the market.

But we will hew to Feynman’s other admonition: that we should…

“Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, ‘Is it reasonable?’ ”

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