Creating a Publishing Platform: Frank Rich

Monday, August 20, 2012
[NOTE: I listened to Frank Rich this morning during the last half hour of The Bill Press Show on Current TV and that reminded me that I just wrote about him during my recently completed Intro to Online Journalism course.  I was to find and analyze the online channels used by my favorite writer and detail how they use them to capture audience attention and create conversations. Just thought that I should share the assignment, which was written in the middle of July, with my readership.]

If given the choice of any writer I would aspire to be (or one that would require a natural disaster for me to miss their latest work), the hands-down choice would be Frank Rich.  A one-time theater critic turned op/ed columnist, Rich has been one of the leading progressive voices in America’s ‘mediascape’ for the past decade who came into his own during the country’s lead-up to the Iraq War and the later years of the George W. Bush administration.  On a weekly basis, he penned hard-hitting 1,500-word columns on politics, current events and culture which anchored The New York Times’ expanded ‘Week in Review’ section in their Sunday editions from 2005 until early 2011 when he left to join New York Magazine.  Rich has slowed down just a tad at his new employer (he now does a monthly column and weekly ‘interview’ sessions with editor-in-chief Adam Moss) but this new tempo has not diminished his veracity nor his desire to seek out the truth from among the multitude of media outlets and political operatives.  While already a devoted weekly reader, his 2006 book The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth and its blistering expose of how Bush and his team ‘rolled out’ a campaign to coerce the American public to sanction a war with Iraq cemented his place as my favorite writer.

The purpose of this exercise is to identify Rich’s channels to his audience and how he attempts to stay relevant in the vast expanse of options available to anyone with access to the Internet.  To preface this work, I must introduce a few facts that play a major part in my analysis.  Rich was born in 1949, making him an “older boomer” as defined in the Pew Research Center report we read earlier in this course and his world view is heavily influenced by growing up in the relative calm of the 1950s followed by the social tumult of the following decade.  His formative years were well in advance of the 1990’s “Information Age” and its subsequent infiltration into nearly all facets of daily life in the 21st century.  His role as a theater critic as well as an opinion columnist require a certain amount of detachment or  ‘aloofness’ in order to provide an objective perspective on the subject of his writing. 

The reason why I bring up these disclaimers is that while Rich is very well-known in his particular communities of expertise based on his printed work, he appears to make very little effort to ‘market’ himself away from that medium via social networking outlets.   This is not to say that his employers (or his alma mater) do not help his cause.  New York Magazine scored a major coup when they persuaded Rich to leave The New York Times—his ‘home’ for over 30 years—and augment their already robust stable of columnists (John Heilemann, Will Leitch, and Chris Smith—Jonathan Chait would come over from The New Republic three months later).  A full press release announcing this move was posted on their website and Rich and Moss provided a ‘teaser’ to their eagerly awaiting readership one week prior to his July 4th debut feature.

Frank Rich’s home page at New York Magazine (accessed 14 July 2012)

Since Rich is a columnist, his primary way of communicating with the magazine’s subscribers (and his wider cyberspace audience) is through his monthly feature articles.  I have included screen captures below to illustrate how they would appear to a reader of the online versions.

Rich’s first column for New York Magazine (left) and his latest (right) (accessed 14 July 2012)

As I mentioned above, Rich and Adams introduced a weekly dialog just before the first feature in July 2011 and they maintained that two-person format until February of this year when Rich started a new solo series called “The National Circus”—question-and-answer pieces that focus on the current political environment and the 2012 presidential race specifically.

Rich’s latest “National Circus” update for New York Magazine (accessed 14 July 2012)

Not all was lost, however, back at the Times when they lost Rich to the rival publication.  As the ‘owners’ of his columns dating back to 1980, they still maintain his former web page and provide access to most of his voluminous body of work (some of the older items are only available for a fee or a digital subscription to their archives).  That site also features other multimedia featuring their former columnist.

Frank Rich’s home page at The New York Times (accessed 14 July 2012)

Not to miss out on Rich’s post-collegiate success, The Harvard Crimson also hosts a web page with links to his 85 contributions to that publication from April 1968 through June 1971. 

A repository of Frank Rich’s writings for the Harvard Crimson (accessed 14 July 2012)

I mentioned in my introductory paragraph that Rich is a best-selling author and he has his own website that features his most recent book as well as links to three other that he either wrote alone or contributed on with another author.  The site is maintained by FSB Associates, an internet marketing firm that specializes in online book publicity, and it appears to have been last updated back in 2007.

Screen capture of (accessed 14 July 2012)

In his highly visible role with New York Magazine (and back when with the Times), Rich is a frequent guest on talk and opinion programs on television (he just appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation yesterday morning).  In 2011, he gave the commencement address at The New School as well as served as a guest lecturer (with composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim) for Princeton University’s 2011-2012 public lecture series.  Many of those appearances have been uploaded to YouTube and other video-sharing venues to allow viewers to watch them away from their original outlets and on their own schedules (Rich does not have his own YouTube page).

Rich maintains an active media schedule and is a frequent guest on news programs (and a liberal ‘effigy’ on some others)

If grading was based solely on these more traditional methods, Rich would have an impressive score.  Unfortunately, our course is focusing on more modern ways of reaching and communicating audience members and the two most dominant platforms today are Facebook and Twitter (Tumblr, a microblogging and social networking website that is just starting to attract the attention of media outlets and journalists as yet another way to touch base with their followers, was not looked at in my research) and it is in this area where we begin to see some waning.  It isn’t like he has not been aware of how readers judged him over the years, but mailbags full of letters or uploaded comments to his columns’ online locations no longer qualify as a ‘conversation’ in a Web 2.0 (and beyond) world.

Rich (or, based upon the third-person narrative in several of the first postings there, someone working for him) established a Facebook page on March 9th of this year.  On that first day, he covered all facets of his media repertoire (an upcoming column, his three books, a musical album, an October onstage conversation with author Fran Lebowitz, and the HBO series that he serves as an executive producer) and provided a link to his booking agent in the ‘About’ section (they were also ‘liked’).  The pace of updates slowed down significantly and it appears that it has settled down to an every 2-to-3 day frequency (although viewing his page in the clunky ‘Timeline’ mode presents issues with accurately judging that periodicity).  As of earlier this afternoon, Rich has over 3,100 fans of his page—not a shabby total (I personally have only around  360 friends at my personal site) but one that is dwarfed in comparison to the 50 million that ‘like’ rapper Eminem or the 1 million that follow conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on the site.

Frank Rich’s Facebook page (accessed 14 July 2012)

With all of the activity on that page, there is only one instance of Rich actually interacting with another person (he shared an unattributed story from his home magazine and thanked a ‘fan’ who replied to the posting).

Rich’s performance on Twitter, the 140 character-limited social networking site, is a little bit more two-way but not by much.  His account (@frankrichny) was started in March 2011 and, as of Saturday, he has ‘tweeted’ 151 times for an average of approximately 10 per month (or a 2-3 day average between postings).

After the initial two items, there was a 3-month hiatus before he resumed ‘tweeting’ for his pending New York Magazine debut column in late June (all are provided below).

Over the next 8 months, this ‘announcement’ trend continued for touting upcoming features, weekly conversations, and appearances on television and other venues.  His first ‘retweet’ was a video uploaded by Tony Hale, an actor from the HBO series Veep in February 2012 and more follow from a variety of followers.  All of these dialogs are limited to a quick reply to the originator; however, there was one from September 2011 that provides some insight into why he is not more proactive with Twitter (and probably the same holds true for Facebook as well) and is displayed below.

A reply to a follower hints at Rich’s possible aversion to social media for business purposes (accessed 14 July 2012)

This ‘tweet’ goes back to some of the items I brought up at the beginning of this assignment concerning his background and life experiences.  Rich, a 63-year old man whose public opinions and critiques have made a significant impact upon the parties in which they were aimed, apparently dislikes talking about himself.  Over the past 40-plus years, he has used a prodigious amount of words to uniquely capture what he has personally lived through, witnessed or been made aware of through the media but rarely does he give his readers a peek into his personal life in those pieces. 

In his final column for the Times, Rich did share just a little bit of it when he looked back at his introduction to opinion writing and to yesteryear’s practitioners of that craft in both the theatrical and political communities.  He mentions the demise of the ‘clout’ that people like himself used to have when newspapers exercised a mighty influence over national events but now his and other respected words face dilution and irrelevance with today’s oversaturation of opinion through an ever-growing number of traditional and social media outlets. 

Rich, like others of the “boomer” generation, are slowly moving out of the way of those who will eventually replace them.   Seeing him and his peers nearing the twilight of their careers fumbling with mediums mastered by people one-half to one-third of their ages may be embarrassing; however, these token efforts do demonstrate their willingness to adapt to the current environment and desire to continue participating in our society's larger conversation.

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