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Beyond the reckoning: Simon Wilson bids farewell to Metro magazine

On Wednesday, Simon Wilson said goodbye to Metro, where he had worked for nine years, five as editor, and to the magazine’s publisher Bauer Media, which last month made him redundant. This was his farewell speech.

“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.” – Sinatra sings Gershwin.

Anyone been watching Halt and Catch Fire?

It’s a series about a bunch of computer nerds in the early 1980s. They live in the wrong city, Dallas Forth Worth, and not Seattle or Silicon Valley. They invent all sorts of things that will become important, but they don’t always know what they’ve done, how significant each thing is. And they’re straining towards something big: they don’t know what it is, exactly, but they know it’s going to change everything and they’re desperate to get there first. We know, watching, that what they’re feeling their way towards is the World Wide Web.

These tech wizards take over a company that makes business machines, run by a guy my age, an older guy called John Bosworth. It’s not a computer company and Bosworth doesn’t know computers. But he does know business. He’s an expert in the field they’ve invaded, and he goes with it, finds a place in their scheme of things. He’s not the tech genius but he does have something to offer.

That’s me, I’ve decided. I have come to understand that I am not going to reinvent the media. I’ll be Bosworth.

Bosworth is the guy who sings that Gershwin song, at the start of series 3, while they’re waiting for a presentation by the upstarts who really are reinventing the world. It’s a bit lame, but it does the trick.

Halt and Catch Fire, by the way, is a computer command. HCF: if you execute it, everything stops. Basically, you kill your computer.

Why would anyone build something with the ability to kill itself?

But that’s what we did, isn’t it? In media, especially print media. “Information wants to be free” was our Halt and Catch Fire.

Magazines are a creative industry. You can focus-group them, but the best you’ll get is a formula you could have written on the back of an envelope anyway, if you were any good.

Magazines need inspiration. Actually, that’s not strictly true. You can make a lot of money just with a formula. But great magazines, it’s the same as making a great anything in the creative industries. Advertising, movies, poems, buildings and public spaces, works of art of all kinds. You need to be creative.

You bring to life something people didn’t know could be alive. You see the world the way it hasn’t been seen before, and make that revelation available to everyone. You make it so everyone talks about it. Make it that people can’t look away.

You make it the thing that causes your readers, your audience, to burst into tears in gratitude, because you have finally given them the thing they didn’t know they needed so much.

Well, why not?

Is that an impossible goal? Who cares if it is? When what you want to do is almost beyond the reckoning, that makes it worth doing. It makes you better.

It’s very simple: above all, make it good. And it’s very simple how you do that, too. You find determined, creative people and you nurture them, empower them, focus them, have their backs.

It’s not just media we do, it’s journalism. Which has never been harder or more rewarding. Media companies, many of them, are trying hard. There are dedicated investigative units in both our major newspaper companies. Witness the reinvigoration of Radio NZ.

Companies are engaged in the painful but important process of opening up structures, to be ready for the new way to do things, whatever that turns out to be.

Journalism isn’t going to stop being important. Think of it like this: journalism is to power what attack is to defence in rugby: the defence is usually better than the attack.

We have to learn how to be Beauden Barrett. On a good day. Make the attack more entertaining and more punishing than the defence. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Magazines become cultural institutions. Ownership is custodianship. There is a duty of care, a duty to the readers and a duty to the larger culture.

It’s hard work. Nobody knows all the answers. Most of us don’t know more than a few of them. But the best of us know when to acknowledge that, know when to take risks and enable others to take risks, and to back them if they don’t always get it right.

It takes courage to be in media. Not enough of us bring that into our work.

There are so many people to thank. I made a list, and then I looked at it and I thought, we’ll be here all night if I go through this and tell you about all the wonderful the people who’ve worked with me on and around Metro.

So, thank you. To all of you, the staff writers and the columnists and feature contributors and the critics. The photographers and illustrators. The designers and subeditors and production staff and IT staff, and the sales staff, and the marketing and market-research staff, the accounts staff, the management. The cleaners, some of whom I got to know so well they invited me to their wedding.

To the journalists and others who work on other magazines and in other corners of the company. It’s easy to become part of a pretty special community here. The architects, too, who gave us such a great building and the executive team who believed in it. The food writers, whose expertise and dedication is so rewarding. Sitting in a restaurant judges’ meeting, with all that knowledge in play and being so determinedly contested, is one of the great experiences I’ve had as editor.

And all the people I write about, when I sit in the dark at some show, or at some draughty table in a restaurant, or in the corner of a meeting room, watching and listening to you. Some of you are here. Thank you, I couldn’t do it without you. I hope you know that writing about you implicitly carries respect. And sceptical best wishes.

And especially Graham Adams, our chief subeditor, who is not well enough to be with us. He has such great expertise, and a great temperament, and he’s been a great foil – because we didn’t always agree and we found such valuable ways to tease that out. It’s a surprising thing to say in our business, but we need a greater exchange of ideas.

There’s a moral imperative, doing what we do, in more ways than one. Being custodians of the culture. And finding ways not so much to be popular but to make quality popular.

There’s another World Wide Web out there. Just waiting for us to invent. God knows what it will be. But it will be the thing that changes everything about what we do. And it will happen.

It will happen because of the people who are brave and stupid and above all creative enough to build Halt and Catch Fire into their operation. Who embrace risk, and not in that way that everyone says they “embrace risk”. Who embrace risk by looking for the edge of what’s possible, and setting up camp there.

I’m quite keen on being part of that. So I’m going off to find a way to do it. Hock my skills and boneheadedness around.

Maybe I’ll only be the old guy who sings bad Frank Sinatra – Bosworth, remember – keeping everyone mildly entertained until the real show starts.

But that’s all right. Because I know – this is possibly a threat – I know most of the words.

Read more:

Spinoff editor Duncan Greive in conversation with Simon Wilson, editor of Metro 2010-2015.

 

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