Gay Talese’s Basement
|3. “The Montage is the Message.”
— Roger Hodge, editor of Harper’s Magazine
When magazines go online, they lose most, if not all, of the editor’s vision. The Internet eradicates the main functions of the editor. Editors in both print and cyberspace choose who writes which stories and what goes into the magazine. But print editors also make judgments about the way the various elements in the magazine relate to one another, and in what sequence. The raison d’être of blogs and wikis is that everyone is an editor and a writer.
The Web also ruins the physicality of a magazine—its weight, its dimensions, the quality of its paper and the way the print feels on the pages. It all becomes HTML, Flash or Java, and what was originally intended to be appreciated in three dimensions, with all five senses, gets compressed into two.
Yet many people love the online medium because they can wake up to their blog digests (links to articles they might enjoy reading) or e-mails from their favorite newspapers, and have their daily dose of news distilled from longer sources, tailored to their interests. Personalized news may be a huge advantage of online over print, but the editor’s vision is lost. For better or worse, magazines have a gestalt, a unifying architecture that reflects the taste of the editor. Every font and every pica is accounted for, each photograph and illustration is chosen to function with the content, and each piece is placed in an order that is intended to guide us through the reading experience.
Readers become their own editors when they browse the Web, clicking through sites however they please. It is a matter of degree, but in print magazines the editor and art director, in effect, tell the reader how to move from article to article or from article to photograph, for maximum impact. The Web allows readers to have tunnel vision: They can completely avoid those articles they aren’t interested in, while in print, sometimes they might have stopped to read such an article, however begrudgingly, and emerged with a new perspective on a subject. “Magazines are valuable content filters for consumers, who in an era of interruption engage with magazines,” Ellen Oppenheim, executive vice president of the Magazine Publishers of America, told a reporter last year. With so much information being exchanged on the Web, it’s helpful to have guidance from tastemakers like editors.
Print magazines also reflect social mores and cultural history; they are cultural artifacts, produced by editors to guide the tastes of their readers. And because we can hold onto them, we can use them to relay the values of any given era. This is why some of us collect them, store them in leather binders and bring them out of our dusty attics for our children and grandchildren to catch a glimpse of life in another time.
4. Magazines are status symbols
Different magazines speak of different lifestyles, and this has become truer than ever since the Internet revolutionized market research for the magazine industry; print magazines can thank the Internet for making it easier to study and reach increasingly fragmented demographic groups. Magazines have always told something about their readers. In a way, they double as status symbols, suggesting something about a reader’s values: You are what you read. We expect to see a copy of Vice rolled into the back pocket of a Williamsburg hipster’s skinny jeans; a well-educated Wall Street type might keep a copy of The Economist in his briefcase; and we might find a copy of Cosmopolitan in the thousand-dollar handbag of a buxom blonde. It is not uncommon to see beautiful, glossy magazines, expensive foreign magazines, magazines that trumpet a particular political agenda and others that offer fine literary journalism proudly displayed on coffee tables. That is because they serve as testaments to their owners’ refined tastes or respectable characters.
According to the media agency Initiative in New York, we spend 45 minutes, on average, reading a magazine. Nowadays, that’s a lot of time to focus on any one thing, and, therefore, by choosing to own certain magazines, readers are making a statement that those magazines are worth a significant portion of their time. And even if we don’t read them cover-to-cover, the mere fact that we have them and that our names and addresses appear on the front means that these are magazines we have chosen to spend our money on because we value what’s inside.
5. McLuhan Loves Magazines
Long before the Internet became a pervasive part of modern culture, the philosophical groundwork was laid for the argument that it wouldn’t displace magazines. It was 1964, and punch cards were de rigueur in computing. “Understanding Media” had just been published, making Marshall McLuhan one of the most controversial and highly paid English professors in history. His critics could barely summarize his writings, as satirized by the memorable scene in “Annie Hall” in which McLuhan suddenly materializes to explain his theories to a pedantic professor waiting on a movie-theater line.
McLuhan’s ideas may seem impenetrable in their complexity, but notwithstanding a barrage of nuanced theory, the lover of magazines can take comfort in one straightforward interpretation of his work: old media survives as the content of new media. Though there are exceptions to this observation, there are also examples that support it. Film, for example, an “old” medium compared to television, nevertheless has persisted and even thrives on TV. And radio, a seemingly archaic technology in the face of downloading MP3s, has become more relevant and far-reaching than ever thanks to its presence on the Web. Likewise, magazines will survive as content on the Internet. But the printed magazine, an alternative to its digital cousin, will endure namely because of its physicality and those previously discussed pleasures.
It is easy to fear the eradication of print. Those editors and publishers who are worried about the death of print have seen the cycles of technological change in other media; they witnessed the triumph of the music video over the radio, the “talkie” over the silent film. In these cases the technology eradicated and replaced existing paradigms. Print has been the preferred medium of disseminating information for the past 500 or so years since Gutenberg and, not surprisingly, the idea of breaking with this tradition can seem threatening. But in the face of this historical gloom and doom, there is hope: Photography did not replace painting—it made it better. Telephones did not replace live conversation—they made us value it more.
New technology can coexist with and even supplement the old. Sure, the print industry should attempt to reinvent itself in the face of these technological changes, but it should not forget that magazines, as a medium, are as large a part of our cultural history as books.
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