The Long Game—in Fiction and Journalism

By Jack Limpert

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Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a German intelligence officer sabotaged by impatient Americans. Photograph courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film, A Most Wanted Man, based on a novel by John le Carre, opens tomorrow and critic David Denby gives it a mostly positive review in the July 28 New Yorker. He ends with this about Hoffman: “He almost never smiles, almost never looks at people until he turns threateningly toward them with a bulldog frown. The film gives le Carre’s bitterly intelligent man some streaks of tenderness, which bring him closer to a conventional movie hero. Yet the heroic quality in Hoffman doesn’t need softening. A great actor, he carried his despair and his outsized sense of responsibility with him to the end.”

Earlier in the review, Denby nails the movie’s main theme: “The movie is based on John le Carre’s 2008 novel, and it’s driven by his contempt for the crudity of American intelligence methods in the Bush-Cheney era.” Denby says Hoffman’s character, a German intelligence officer, is playing “the long game,” while the Americans are too impatient to play a long game and they botch the operation.

The long game vs. the short game—also an enduring question in journalism.

When I worked for United Press International, one of my jobs for two years back in the 1960s was to call on all the daily newspapers in Illinois outside of Chicago. All these 75 or so daily newspapers were locally owned with the exception of a paper in Decatur that owned one of the two papers in Champaign.

The owners and publishers couldn’t have been more different but what they had in common was this was their hometown paper. And while some wanted to make more money than others, you got the sense they were playing a long game.

Then Wall Street knocked on the door—in Illinois Gannett began to buy papers, the chains kept growing and dangling what seemed like big money in front of local owners, and the locally owned newspaper became endangered. (Estate taxes also played a role as local owners died and their children wanted to cash in.)

Were the chains playing a long game? They were just like the Americans in the le Carre novel—they were crude (headquarters demands 15 percent earnings growth—no excuses) and impatient (fire the education reporter if you have to).

The le Carre novel didn’t have a happy ending, nor will the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie. As for journalism, who is now playing the long game—coming up with a new revenue equation as readers move from print to digital?
Here’s a condensed version of an earlier post that touches on the role a magazine editor can play in the long game:

If it’s mid-September and you’re the editor, you can expect an email from accounting asking each department head to come up with a proposed budget for next year. You then analyze editorial spending in the current year, talk to staff about how the magazine can get better, and come up with budget numbers that you think will let you improve the editorial side of the magazine without drawing too much laughter from the numbers people.

The publisher, working with accounting, then combines all the budget proposals into a magazine budget for the next year—subject to what will be negotiated by each department head at the annual budget meeting in November.

At that budget meeting, which pretty well locks you in to what you can do next year, I found that the essential argument was short-term vs. long-term thinking.

The numbers people tend to think short-term: Can we cut the edit ratio of pages from 46 to 44 percent, saving $150,000 in editorial and production costs? Why do we need $5,000 a month for editorial and art kill fees? Do we have to pay for subscriptions to all these magazines and newspapers?

The editor argues long-term: Good stories and good design keeps the subscriber renewal rate up high; if the editorial product weakens and the renewal rate drops by five percent, we’ll have to spend a lot of money on direct mail to keep the circulation numbers where they are now. You make the case that smart investment in editorial quality is a big long-term payoff.

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