Jon McKnight writes for The New Yorker. There! Doesn’t that sound grand? The only problem is, I don’t.
But I’m not alone in wishing I did. Hundreds of thousands of journalists and countless aspiring writers would love to have those five little words come up whenever anybody Googles their name.
In the writing world, having that label is every bit as impressive as “has a suite at The Ritz”, “winters in Monaco”, or “travels by chauffeur-driven Bentley”.
But while those desirable statuses can be bought, if you have the money, you can’t buy your way into becoming a writer for The New Yorker - or at least, not so far as I know.
If the magazine let anyone write for it if they were sufficiently wealthy and crossed its corporate palm with silver, it would be full of unreadable tosh written by billionaires who’d got where they are in life as a result of their numeracy, not their literacy - but as we all know, it isn’t.
I first became aware of it half a century ago, flicking through copies of The Reader’s Digest in dentists’ waiting-rooms.
The best extracts, the wittiest one-liners, were all attributed to The New Yorker. And you can’t listen to BBC Radio 4, or the essayist and raconteur David Sedaris, without being reminded that he, too, writes for The New Yorker.
Gig-envy set in at an early age.
While I was writing about the daily minutiae of life here in Devon and Cornwall and Plymouth - the place the Pilgrims loved so much in 1620 that they spent just one night there then set off in The Mayflower to cross the Atlantic when their chances of survival were less than 50 per cent - proper journalists were writing for The New Yorker, being admired for it, then being admired all over again when extracts of their work helped take readers’ minds off their toothache in those waiting-rooms.
It never crossed my mind that few if any of those stories were about New York, even though the title rather implied they might be.
The Big Apple (and congratulations to the fruit marketing expert who thought that one up) is full of juicy stories, no doubt, and whereas a magazine called The Plymothian could draw upon the comings and goings of a mere 300,000 people to fill its pages, The New Yorker has eight-and-a-half million in the City alone and another 12 million if you include the State.
But The New Yorker has a global outlook, and a global audience, too.
So, allegedly, does Vocal, the writing platform that claims in its Facebook ads that you can earn $6,000 a month if enough people read your stories.
But therein lies the difference.
The New Yorker already has an audience. Has done since 1925. More than 23 million of them.
But Vocal expects you to bring your own audience with you.
Being a half-decent writer isn’t enough - even if, like me, you have 40 years’ experience as a journalist, copywriter, editor, scriptwriter, novelist, magazine owner and publisher and find it relatively easy (as I damned well should do by now) to put one word in front of the other in a reasonably engaging manner.
No. You can write your heart out on Vocal, receive feedback that what you’ve written is profoundly moving, extraordinary, or totally original… only to find out that the story has been read by a grand total of seven people.
I can’t imagine that’s ever happened to a writer on The New Yorker.
But what if they did have to bring their audience with them?
No matter how skilled or experienced they were as writers, their finest outpourings would only be read if they already had a mass following or were so adept at social media that they could generate viral posts that would point millions of people at their stories.
The geek, it seems, shall inherit the Earth.
For not only would legions of exceptionally fine writers find themselves out on the street or out on their ears because no-one was reading their work any more (even though the quality remained exactly the same), but those who survived on the Condé Nast payroll would have to forget all those notions of original thinking and sparkling prose that they’re famous for and write instead for algorithms, produce stories that were clickable rather than eloquently argued, and, preferably, find a way of making themselves young, sexy and female if they’re to compete for eyeballs with the average influencer.
It’s not as if Vocal is any good at social media itself. If it depended for its success on that, it would be as frustrated and unknown as many of the writers who’ve signed up to its platform, and it would be wondering where its next meal was coming from.
Vocal has more than a million people writing for it, yet it only has 6,052 followers on Twitter. In its own terms, that hardly makes Vocal an influencer.
So if Vocal can’t do social media itself, why does it expect those who write for it to be any better at it?
They will have a sporting chance of getting lots of Reads (as Vocal calls them) for their stories, lending truth (though a spurious one) to the Facebook ad claim that you can make $6,000 from writing for it.
It requires a million Reads to hit that figure, and Vocal knows that the vast majority of its writers, however gifted with words, will never get anywhere near that.
After two months of writing for Vocal (and paying a monthly fee for the privilege), the 24 stories I’ve written have been read by a total of 1,323 people - an average of 55 Reads for each story - and one of them has yet to break into double figures.
I have made $7.94 from Reads. Altogether.
It could be that I’m a lousy writer, of course, and have the lack of audience I deserve.
I can’t rule that out, and it’s for others to judge whether my writing’s worth reading or not. But surely the editors, clients and publishers I’ve been writing for professionally for the past four decades couldn’t all have been wrong?
It would be an interesting experiment if an established writer on The New Yorker, used to having his or her writing appreciated by millions, were to join Vocal under an assumed name, write stories to exactly the same standard that The New Yorker would readily accept, then see how many Reads they were rewarded with on Vocal.
In the meantime, I’d be happy to run that experiment the other way around.
Would more than seven people read my stories? Or would the Editor of The New Yorker take me aside and break it to me gently that, no, I’d been wrong all the time and, despite The New Yorker having an audience of millions ready to devour everything the publication puts before them, none of them was interested in reading mine.
Michel Pitre has a theory, which I subscribe to, that Vocal CEO Jeremy Frommer is fattening up his company to impress potential investors, so the more people he can attract to write for the platform - most of them for peanuts - the more money he can command for it.
The young and pretty influencers who already have millions of followers will be able to justify his Facebook ad’s claims if even one of them manages to earn $6,000 a month - as well as giving Vocal visibility on social media that it has no idea how to achieve itself - and it won’t matter whether they have any literary talent or not.
Meanwhile, the rest will toil away, grateful for a read here and a read there, while costing Mr Frommer and his platform very little at all.
As I suggested in one of my previous stories: Write for Vocal. You know it makes cents.
None of which will advance my case with The New Yorker, of course.
Biting the hand that doesn’t feed you is rarely a good tactic, but perhaps the Editor might care to put my theory to the test and run that experiment.
And if only Vocal were good at SEO, which it isn’t, at least I’d have the consolation that anyone Googling me would see results beginning “Jon McKnight writes for The New Yorker”. Even though I don’t.
• JON McKNIGHT is the Editor of Prestigious Magazine, the author of the comic novel A Prize To Die For, and co-writer of the unpublished screenplay Three Score Years… And Then!