About nine months ago I happened upon an essay on The Common Reader, which is based in St. Louis. At that time, Ferguson, Missouri, was the center of attention around the world because of the riots following the shooting of Michael Brown. The site published a number of pieces on police and race. But instead of showing buildings on fire and shouting protesters, the tone and perspective of the stories seemed to come from more knowledgeable places: the inside perspective of the St. Louis policeman, a historical perspective of a retired African American FBI agent, and the analytical point of view of an anthropologist. I was intrigued. Who put together this curious collage of narratives?
A different animal
I sat down with the creator of The Common Reader: Gerald Early of Washington University in St. Louis. As Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and head of the department of African-American Studies, Early is an accomplished academic despite the fact that he is not a fan of academic writing. In 2014, Early told me, he went to the chancellor and said: “Let’s rethink how the university can publish something. Imagine. Think differently.” Early didn’t want to start an academic journal, he wanted to write quality for a broader public and he wanted to do it online.
The chancellor gave him the freedom to create what he envisioned. Within the mission of “furthering the reputation of the university,” Early was free to create content without worrying about getting clicks or creating revenue. This is important to note if we want to understand this new venture in light of entrepreneurial journalism, where the emphasis tends to lie on creating new business models for news and generating revenue for investors. Early believes The Common Reader might never follow a business model for profit. However, he hopes to break even in seven or eight years. A paywall on the website and a paid-for paper edition should be able to make that happen. But for now, the private university is paying for facilities, equipment and staff so Early can first establish a reputation.
Getting the band together
Early has hired Ben Fulton, a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter, as managing editor. Together with Jennifer Killion, production coordinator, they manage the publication and its writers, but they don’t really tell the writer what to do. Based on his own creative experience, Early suggests that the key to good writing is to make a writer feel comfortable.
“It’s like getting a band together,” he says. “You just want them to do their thing.”
The only thing writers have to do is adhere to a certain “taste” that, in Early’s own words, is “a little bit quirky and a little bit off the beaten path, without being pretentious or trying to be hip.”
What makes The Common Reader interesting to me is that the writers are impossible to place in any single category: journalist, academic or essayist. The Common Reader staff approach most writers for their knowledge; some writers contact the journal after seeing or hearing about it. Although The Common Reader does pay its writers, those I spoke to don’t do it as much for the money, but because they want to express their ideas. The Common Reader is not the main source of income for any of the writers. Cultural critic, English lecturer and poet Eileen G’Sell, for example, writes from a personal investment in St. Louis, where she lives.
“It is a kind of personal reportage mixed with a little bit of personal experience,” she says.
Getting her name out on articles, which she can write the way she wants, is a good opportunity along with her other work. Respected Washington University professor of economics Michele Boldrin has already made a name for himself, but he likes to write for a publication like The Common Reader so that he can translate his research findings to stories more useful for political and practical implications.
The easy atmosphere that comes with not feeling any pressure to make money colors my personal interviews with the writers. But it also hangs over the publication in general. From the first day I arrive, I’m told that the next issue — a bundle of essays on music — will come out “tomorrow.” And then the next day it’s “tomorrow.” And the next day, again, I’m told “tomorrow.” Eventually it’s a week later before I can finally browse through it. On the one hand, for being based online, this slowness might sometimes get in the way. Fulton calls the work he does now “easy-going, but still oddly rigorous,” especially when compared to his old days in the newsroom. Response emails are elaborate, deadlines are more suggestive than solid, and articles are edited on paper. A lack of regular new content is, according to Fulton, probably the most important reason that readership is still quite low (it sure isn’t the lack of quality or originality).
The time that is taken to set up each issue mostly allows for attention to detail that is not so liberally available at other journalistic ventures. For example, the selection of the picture on the cover of the music issue took three meetings and many weeks of going through images. The “winning” photo — showing Pokey LaFarge and his audience — was chosen for its symbolic value: music as a communal happening between the performer and the audience. The same attention is paid to the writing, as every word is checked as if it were to be printed on precious paper. There are no tempting headlines that shout at you to click them, no luring listings of “10 things you should know about. …”
Personally, I have a weak spot for a publication like The Common Reader. It ignores conventions, trends or commercial incentives and is created from the heart and the mind. This unruly attitude also means that it’s not a roaring success, based on the number of visitors to the site. The lack of click-bait means less clickers, and the university-aura might make it inaccessible to a large group of people. This might make you wonder, Shouldn’t they up the content and get more savvy at promoting their stories on the web to make sure that, in a decade, more people will have heard about them? But on the other hand, wouldn’t that devour the uniqueness and added value of the journal, making it obsolete all together?
As both Early and Fulton acknowledge, it is a project for the long run. The success so far can’t be found in the quantity of the readership but in the quality of the writing. At a time when the trend is to publish fast, where making mistakes to be corrected later (rather than spending time to get it right the first time) is standard, The Common Reader can be considered a breath of fresh air. Most likely, it is a unique occurrence: a charismatic professor gaining funding to create something according to his own vision. But perhaps we can still learn from Early’s work and let it serve as an inspiration to the innovators in the industry who strive after this kind of work. Like me, they might first feel more confident to be different or even a little “quirky” and promote online journalism that adheres to the highest standard. Second, they can also take The Common Reader as a sign that, given the right kind of journalist with the right kind of idea, it is possible to go into fruitful and exciting collaborations with academics.
Sofie Willemsen is launching a journalistic startup as part of her final project.