Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Why the passionate amateur matters to magazines
Three years ago, Jeffrey A. McMurtrie decided to make his own map of Algonquin Park. McMurtie, a third year environmental geography student at the University of Toronto and a frequent Algonquin visitor, realized that the official park map had “serious” cartographical errors. He also didn’t like the fact that the map didn’t mark enough destinations such as springs or historical sites. He spent two years working on the project, gathering information from earlier park maps, books, newspapers, park publications, trip logs and his own observations. When he was done, he put it on the Internet and allowed people to download it for free.

Jeffrey A. McMurtrie is currently on a canoe trip in Algonquin and could not be reached for comment.
McMurtrie’s map is much, much better than the official park map, which you can only get in print for a price. It's more accurate, more current and has way more information. (He says it has more than 120 layers of data.) He updates it frequently and is happy to correct errors that users inform him of.

He also sells an 84-page book version of the map for $25, a full-sized, 41.5”x55” version for $35 ($45 on waterproof material), and sectioned versions for $10-$16. “Don’ worry though,” McMurtrie writes, “the print and digital versions are the same. In fact the prices are as low as the printing companies will let me go (I don't want to make a profit.)”

In his New Yorker review of Chris Anderson’s much-discussed book Free, Malcolm Gladwell questions the wisdom of the by-now ancient mantra of Web evangelists, “Information wants to be free.”
But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
Gladwell makes a good point, but the thing is, passionate hobbyists like McMurtrie do want the information they provide to be free. “I don’t want to make a profit.” And, more importantly, passionate hobbyists like McMurtrie often provide information that is better than what’s provided by people and organizations that do want to make a profit.

This is the key point, a point that is absolutely essential for publishers, editors and writers—virtually everyone who works in magazines and media—to understand. People don’t choose McMurtrie’s map over the official map because it’s free; they choose it because it's better than all the other options. And there are thousands, maybe millions of people like McMurtrie out there, providing rich content with no intentions of getting rich (or even making a profit). They do it because they love it. They share it because the Internet allows them to and because it’s fun to share.

It frustrates me to no end when I hear people suggest that content created by professionals is inherently superior to content created by amateurs. I’ll grant you that for certain kinds of things—films and TV shows, classical music and jazz, possibly investigative and literary journalism—money makes a difference. Playing Mozart symphonies on the violin takes years and years of training (not to mention a lot of musical talent), so the orchestras that pay are going to get better players than the orchestras that don’t. On the other hand, things like commentary, essays, service journalism, reviews, photography, even news reporting—the bulk of what goes into most magazines—are often done just as well, if not better, by people like Jeffrey A. McMurtrie.

So hide behind your pay walls if you must. You might even get some people to follow you. And if you’re smart enough and good enough, you might even turn a profit. The majority of people, though, will be out in the real Web, planning fishing and canoe trips on the backs of guys who spend three years worth of time and energy building giant maps that they give away for free. These people don’t care whether or not you’re “monetizing” your content or not. They just want their maps.
- Marco Ursi
About Me
Marco Ursi
Marco is the editor of MastheadOnline. His blog offers a mix of commentary, service and ideas related to Canadian magazines.


Twitter: @MarcoUrsi

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