Rob Orchard - Speed is the real downward pressure on quality
Updated: Mar 6, 2019
I catch up with Rob Orchard to discuss Delayed Gratification's resistance of the mainstream, the fallout of high-velocity news headlines, and how to do journalism - properly.
As Co-Founder of Delayed Gratification, you’ve built a new type of magazine that takes news and culture slowly, publishing every three months, and allowing your journalists to stick with a story after the headlines have moved on. Your cover art is gorgeous. I think it well-represents how your magazine is a real object; has this been a driver for you, to create something that resists disposability?
Yeah, totally. We were planning this magazine in 2010, and we launched it in January 2011. And it was really a very, very bleak time for publications. There was this mantra doing the rounds everywhere that print is dead. And you could kind of see that, in a way, that shipping paper over and printing on it, and then shipping that everywhere on the off-chance that people might buy it – and then taking all the leftover stuff and just chucking it away, made no sense when you could instantly send something out.
But at the same time, all of these advocates of digital above print had failed to show concretely how they were going to make any money out of it – what the business model was. Particularly after we’d spent, as an industry, twenty years telling people that stuff they got digitally should be free. So from the very beginning we had this strong feeling that that print was still - if you did it really well, the best way to make people pay for good journalism.
If you’re only going to do a magazine every three months it’s more of a book than a magazine, so you want every aspect of it to really sing. The design had to be fantastic, the paper quality had to be great – there has to be that tactility, you have to play off all the best stuff that print can do. So you want a piece of art on the cover, you want the artist to tell you about it on the inside. You want the magazine to smell good as well as looking good; one of the first things I quite often see at a newsstand is that someone will pick up a copy of the magazine and smell it. And that makes me really happy – I saw it the other day, and I had to resist the urge to go over and be like, “do you like how my magazine smells?” (laughs) – it’s like the worst chat-up-line in history.
You know, there was this book a while back called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, and Carr talks about the difference between the ways of learning with printed products and the digital experience. With a printed product, you pick it up, read either all of it or a bit of it – and then you have to go get another book, whereas with a digital experience you are constantly being dragged away. There’s a switch from a horizontal, joined-up way of learning, to this very networked spiraling-off in different directions. It’s not necessarily better or worse, just a different way of experiencing the environment that you’re in, because you’ll also have another tab open with your email, if you’re into that sort of nonsense you’ll have one with your twitter or Facebook, your brain is constantly feeling the pull to leave that page.
How do you get a magazine to smell good?
To be fair, it’s not a consciously plotted thing. Fundamentally what you’re smelling is printers’ ink with a bit of glue – that’s quite a pleasing (laughs) well, glue is quite nice. We’ve just changed printers and there’s a distinctly different smell – a more subtle smell, because we’re using a different printing process. I have in the past had readers get in touch and say that consistently they had to leave it out on the balcony for three days until the smell lifts a bit…
Has your previous work in customer publishing, at TimeOut, or as Editorial Director of Hot Media, influenced Delayed Gratification as your passion product?
Yeah I think it pushed me the other way. I worked at TimeOut Dubai, which I loved doing. It was a group of us all in our very early twenties, going out and exploring the city, writing interesting things and putting together this magazine. I went from that to customer publishing, which is much, much more restrictive, obviously, because you are not the master of what you’re doing, you’re putting your skills to work for a corporate master. Which was good for making some money, and certainly for the first three or four years with Delayed Gratification money was unbelievably tight, we didn’t have any backers, I was working freelance in the evenings and weekends to keep the wolf from the door. So it was almost the polar opposite, I felt free and inspired and excited – but was almost stony broke.
We bring analysis to bear on a story ticking away in the background of people’s consciousness
I feel like you’ve certainly learnt some valuable lessons from the branded products; you deliver extremely slick pitches online, for a TEDx talk, for example, with very punchy soundbites. Do you think as an independent magazine, that your bottom line will always be turning a profit?
It’s always been important for me to make some money rather than making no money out of it; definitely doing it for three, three and a half years without taking a salary was very difficult personally, and I only kept going because I have a bee in my bonnet about it – and I thought it was really important. And we did it ourselves: five journalists who had this product that we could grow, but also have as a repository for the stories that we wanted to write. It was important to bootstrap it, do it organically.
Would you describe the magazine as a luxury product?
That’s an interesting question. Yeah, it is a luxury product. Yeah – it is. £10 for a magazine, £36 for a year's subscription is, I think, pretty good value. But it is a luxury magazine – and only ever a complement, because you can’t just wait to get Delayed Gratification to know what’s going on. You’d have no idea what was going on right now. So it’s designed for people who are also reading the Economist, Private Eye, either The Spectator or The New Statesman, or The Times and The Guardian, and want something that’s just a bit slower. So, ye-eah it is; but on the other hand, what is £10? It’s two pints of not-particularly-nice lager in a poncy bar in London. And for that, to get 120 pages of advertising-free well-researched journalism… I feel like ‘luxury’ is a very loaded term you’re chucking on there –
- you did agree to it.
Yeah well. But what is ‘luxury news’? I don’t really know. Luxury for me has connotations of insane mark-ups and something that’s not necessarily worth having.
As a news provider do you think you’d lose something from not being directed to ‘the ordinary reader’?
Well, what’s an ordinary reader (laughs)? I don’t think £10 an issue puts this outside of the reach of many people.
No, but what’s the difference in tone or content between a magazine directed to those who pay for ‘luxury’ rather than stuff that’s churned out and clickable?
This whole idea of ‘slow journalism’ for me just boils down to proper journalism. The reason we took our stand, taking time to do something of quality, was exactly because of the appearance of this click-baity nature of the internet and how the internet is funded. So I’d say this is just ‘good’ journalism – sending journalists to places and allowing them to write in depth; if you want to call that luxury then it’s only luxury in comparison to knee-jerk stuff.
What are most people in the country interested in that could bring them more towards this sort of journalism?
That’s interesting. I think the best marketing director for us has been Donald Trump, and this is an effect we’ve seen everywhere. More people are getting more and more engaged with the news, the more unstable, and the more incomprehensible it becomes. We’re never going to be a mass-market title. We’re never going to sell 500,000 copies of Delayed Gratification, it’s too niche, and it’s too much of a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from what most people are used to. But certainly I think there’s a solid constituency of people in the country who want something non-partisan and independent that picks up stories once everybody else has let them drop.
In your TEDx talk – you picked out how in the last 20 years journalism has “changed for the worst” – and that some of what journalism is often valued for “accuracy, impartiality, context, depth” – are all under threat. Was it ever solely free to pursue those ends, or will news always be shackled to the need to be sold, or to those who’ve bought the right to say what they want to the public?
I’d have no idea what pure journalism would be. Journalism without any reference to commercial stuff, or the interests of their proprietor, or the interests of their editor – or of their reader, it’d be just some objective spinning ball of jelly. That’d be no good at all, and if you get back to the yellow press – to the ridiculously partisan news barons that there were, there have always been agendas at work. And arguably, when there were fewer media outlets each of those condensed a lot more power – and with no chance for anyone in the comments taking them to task.
However, I feel that the quantum shift has just been speed. The change that has come has been two-fold: firstly, they’ve been stripped of resources, newsrooms being cut way back, freelance rates remain static or dip downwards, and secondly, we have seen this incredible importance put on speed. Because we have the ability to broadcast things in real time, that’s exactly what we’ve started to do. It’s just an instinct but one that I bet you could back up with research: the news agenda has become much, much more flighty, we tend to stick on stories for a much shorter amount of time, and we’re asking for journalists to process a story and a reaction much, much faster than they ever used to. That for me is the real downward pressure on quality.
What you’ve got with Brexit, say, is just noise, constant noise coming back and forth.
Do you think breaking news, disaster news, rolling news, is even coverage of a story anymore?
Yes, I can see an argument that way, but there’s also the argument that you just become a part of the story. If you look at the Pistorius trial and how intensely involved the media were in the action; there were journalists tweeting “Pistorius has just leaned forward”, “he looks sad” – what is this adding? But it’s incredibly compelling, and if you’re caught up in the situation and you’re engaged with it I find it compelling despite myself. A story generally benefits from a set amount of time that’s being covered, a beginning, middle, and an end, some clearly defined protagonists who go on a journey and then resolve it. But what you’ve got with Brexit, say, is just noise, constant noise coming back and forth.
There was PM (Harold Macmillan) who when asked “what’s politics all about?”, just said: “Events, dear boy. Events!” But to my mind, Delayed Gratification resists the politicisation of news because it doesn’t quite exist in the sphere of becoming part of the story. By being three months late, you’re no-longer useful to a politician in the way that you’re directly influencing voters. Perhaps though, this says a little more about politics than good news, in that it’s about controlling the public’s headspace…
I think you’re definitely correct in that it’s much easier to be non-partisan if what you’re doing is reviewing a big story three-months down the line and seeing what’s happened. As long as you have humans working on your stories, even if they’re sworn to be impartial in all things, they will all bring their own bias to things. However this ‘naked’ partisanship, if you’re making 24/7 news, is really useful – as it gives you instant perspective on things as they come up.
Do you think the model of viral stories and clickable online links is sound anyway?
I think it’s a disaster. They completely militate against the proper journalism that you want, because everything is geared up towards shocking people and we’ve all been completely deadened because we’re all shocked the whole time, and you have to take everything to extremes to excite people and get them to click on things at all. You can get two angry people from opposite sides of the debate and get them to argue with one another, but that generates far more heat than light. So no, I think virality and clickability are the death-knell of good journalism, but they vaguely work in terms of funding if you’re prepared to play that game.
What we need is an army of young, aggressive journalists who are paid enough so that they don’t also have to be an uber driver in their spare time, going out and combing the country for stories and holding corrupt people to account. We have it slightly in the BBC, and we’re lucky to have the BBC, but we’re missing that more generally.
I think viral stories are rather similar to a physical virus. If as a virus you kill all your victims too quickly, the stories die really fast – and then nobody remembers them.
The thing about clickability is that it does just add into this white noise component, which is something that we’ve always banged on about. If you’re not working in the media, and this isn’t your main thing, it can seem incredibly difficult to parse out what seems to be important from the white noise coming towards you every day. Should I be on The Guardian’s live blog and seeing every update? Should I be following the links on my Facebook feed, joining in and adding my own links – or following Twitter, what should I be doing? This proliferation of stories makes it very difficult to pick your way through.
Can you describe ‘churnalism’?
It’s a very specific thing. Churnalism is the use of press releases in whole, or in part, and putting them out under the name of your own title – and that’s a result of a newsroom that’s been denuded of funds but in which journalists are under great pressure to get out stories very quickly. Take a piece, top-and-tail it, get it out there. Which is… very bad (laughs), it’s in the category of ‘very bad journalism’ – but it’s understandable that it’d be out there to such an extent.
I suppose it’s almost analogous to how lobbying works in Westminster. You’ve got a load of MPs, who need to have a load of information on incredibly disparate topics but don’t have the resources to find it. So you’ll have people with vested interests who provide them with research documents which appear to be objective, but which of course are slanted towards their corporate pay-masters. There’s been a couple of examples where people have shown how easy it is to get stories into the system – the LIVR App managed to persuade a load of journos that there was a smartphone app exclusively for drunk people.
Companies with a good PR department have the capability to package themselves so well. People, even, sell themselves in such an authored way online now…
Every single company in the world now has got this cookie-cutter creation myth, like ‘hey, we’re these couple of guys, and I noticed my arse was a bit scratchy after using toilet paper and I told my friend Ben who was like – yeah, let’s disrupt the toilet paper market!’ No matter how doll your product you need one of these stories, and we have one as well – five young guys working through the night, making magazines. I mean it’s true, but it’s a finessed foundation myth like anything else. I wonder if the difference there, presumably every single company has always tried to market itself towards the prevailing consensus of their era, is the personal brand – having to market yourself, which is a little bit sick-making, I think.
If people have begun to share news stories that simply bump their personal brand, and curate a timeline that construct an image of who they’d like to be – vegan food recipes or Vox tutorials – then it troubles me that this sharing mechanism is also how we’re now accessing most of our news media.
I agree that the medium and the way its structured has all of these slightly unforeseen influences. Having a feed where you are building a brand – selecting news stories, is weird. I don’t know whether it’s necessarily detrimental, it’s an incentive to share things. At the back end of that, if your business model as a news provider rests on people sharing things on social media – and the reason they’re sharing things is because it shows them off as leftie, or pro-environmental, or the reverse, and you have a weird incentive to shape your stories for virality.
With a magazine, there’s something very lovely when concocting it as a package. ‘Magazine’, I think, comes from the Arabic word for a storehouse; an assortment of things brought together in one place. It’s not snackable; instead it’s designed to be consumed as a piece. When a frighteningly large number of people click to share articles without having read them, on the basis of the headline effectively, magazines completely blow apart this idea of a curated experience.
Where there’s this lightshow going on... we go back and look at what was really happening.
Where we started was the idea of Delayed Gratification as an object, with the benefits of singular vision and construction – and a point. Compare that to the sharing of articles that people haven’t even read, a headline’s worth of words that incites rage or pity, it’s a very strange atmosphere…
It is a strange atmosphere – it’s very discombobulating. There are lots of positives to this world we live in, though, even when there are lots of negatives: one thing that always upsets me is that when somebody says something that could be construed as being bigoted – even though it’s stripped of the context that proves it was clearly a joke, or that it was ironic, or that they corrected themselves immediately. That kind of stuff is catnip online, and it ruins people’s lives. That said – arguably things like MeToo, the correction that’s going on in our society as a result of it, would never have exploded in the way it did nor enabled people to find solidarity with one another if the media was just a bunch of papers run out of New York and London. That grassroots movement wouldn’t have happened. So you’re right – it’s worrying, but to some extent, what does it matter if some people just use their online feeds for virtue signalling?
The question is: the good journalism, how do we fund that, and what makes the grade?
You see stories that only get picked up or take off because they’ve got something specific about them; the classic one was that desperately sad photo of Alan Kurdi, the little boy who died and was being picked up on a beach. It kind of became the face of the migrant and refugee crisis, and of course loads and loads and loads of people had been dying up until then, but it was something particular about that story and that image that grabbed the public’s consciousness. We did some analysis in the magazine, and the shift between the use of terms between ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’ on google is extraordinary after that photo comes out.
We’re humans, fairly basic characters driven by storytelling. There are certain stories that grab us and move us. I suppose the internet has a way of heightening or speeding that up.
Stories are the way in which we engage. But perhaps in this era it’s wrong to pick out individual stories – it is in fact the entire current, the twittersphere or similar, which is mutating and evolving all the time, that represents the feeling of online news. In your magazine, you are not doing that. You are claiming authorship of the news threads you have chosen, it is distinct, as a voice. What are the stories that you think are important?
From the product point of view, it has to be something that makes people happy and inspired and pleased and informed. Otherwise it’s not going to continue because people aren’t going to buy it. I think the articles I’m most proud of are articles where we bring analysis to bear on a story that has been ticking away in the background of people’s consciousness but that they haven’t fully engaged with.
We had a piece a couple of issues ago about Yemen. Really interesting analysis from a guy who was in Sana’a from when the Houthis had swept in, and interviewed one of their most prominent leaders. As I was commissioning it and as I was editing it I realised that I had only the vaguest of ideas of what the hinterland was for this story. I was seeing lots and lots of stuff about Yemen - but I hadn’t really grasped why the hell the thing had happened, and not just in the last ten years – but in the hundred before that. So those sorts of things, where you shine a light onto the world, are fantastic. And we have the opportunity to do that in four and five thousand words in the way that you don’t in a little daily briefing.
I also really like doing stories that couldn’t possibly have been published at the time. One of my favourite stories was this piece we did where we interviewed Randi Griffin. Randi Griffin was a hockey player in the Korean women’s united hockey team. She was a Korean-American lady who spent years preparing with this team for the Olympics, and two weeks before they’d started playing they had these North Korean players sandwiched in for this political stunt. It was a gesture of rapprochement between the North and the South – and at the time everyone had to be super on message ‘Yeah, oh yeah – this is amazing. What a fantastic thing to have happened.’ And then afterwards when the heat and pressure is off, you can analyse it: ‘I was basically being used as a political pawn here, the sport was tossed to one side, it was a very weird experience, and I’m not convinced that Korea should be unified because it’s two incredibly different countries at this stage and it might be a disaster’. Where there’s this lightshow going on and none of us have quite got the time or attention to properly engage with it, but we’re like ‘in general it sounds quite good’, then you go back and look at what was really happening.
What do you enjoy writing?
I wish I wrote more for the magazine. That’s one of my things for 2019. Of course I started the magazine partly as a repository for all the stories I wanted to write, and I spent just a lot of time it seems doing VAT returns and working out how to run a subscription systems, all the minutiae of running a small business. One that I really enjoyed, was going back to Salisbury three months after the Skripals, and talking to some of the people who’d been thrown into the strangest situation. Talking to this guy who’d been Editor of the Salisbury Journal – who went from this very small-time reporting, court cases, redevelopment plans, and being Editor of the Basingstoke Gazette and Andover Advertiser at the same time – to being right at the centre of this rapidly evolving spy mystery story, working round the clock… he was fascinating. He told me this story which didn’t get any play at the time, after it’d been identified that a nerve agent had been used, this woman in an office building a few doors down was taken ill – and she was ushered out by her concerned colleagues, an ambulance came, and she was met by the world’s media, fifty-sixty journalists taking photos, recording her on their phones. She got into the ambulance and it turned out that she wasn’t poisoned by novichok, but was having a panic attack because she spent so much time thinking she’d been poisoned by novichok. And the first thing that greeted her, having a panic attack, was the world’s media.