Monday, December 21, 2009

Piñatas at a Birthday Party

In this the Great Age of Disaggregation, all the old forms are being smashed apart and their contents spilled out like piñatas at a birthday party.
-Adam Gopnik, "What's the Recipe?", The New Yorker, 11/23/09

This weekend I cancelled my Maghound membership.

The customer service form asked me to specify from a list of options why I was closing my account. I scanned down the list and selected "too much money". But the $6.24 charged to my Amex each month wasn't really stretching my purse strings.

Each morning when I walk to work, I read The Daily Beast's Morning Scoop and the Slatest Morning Edition on my iPhone. Throughout the day, in spare moments polka-dotted among meetings, phone calls, and trips to check the oft-laden communal office kitchen table, I check my thirty-some RSS feeds for news updates, among other things. I also get Washington Post and New York Times breaking news e-alerts. I use my family's New Yorker subscription digital account to read articles in full, I browse Time's Best&Worse Lists, and I plug away at the weekly Times free archived crossword puzzle. I also, in long stretches when my Outlook calendar is appointmentless, keep a book on my desk. But that's besides my point here.

I've spent a total of two summers and an entire academic year working at magazines. I look forward to getting a pedicure as much for the trashy magazine selection as the foot pampering. I keep a stack of them on my coffee table. I'd rather read a magazine than a book at my counter over breakfast since it lies dead flat and I don't have to juggle five things.

But the cold truth is that society has made a bandwagon of technology, and it's writing magazines' obituary. There are solutions afoot, like a super-conglomerate of Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst and Meredith that would sell magazines both in print and iTunes-style. Or compromises between print and digital, like U.S. News and World Report's new weekly digital magazine, a downloadable PDF offered gratis to print subscribers or for $19.95 annually. And there are suggestions like developing a shared investment among readers in a publication, like Good's contribution of subscription proceeds to charity.

But plans like AOL's to let computers, rather than editors, run a digital newsroom is eerily 1984-like. (Julia has "some mechanical job on one of the novel-writing machines".) "Mass-production"- AOL CEO Tim Armstrong actually used that phrase- of magazine content undercuts the very lifeblood of magazines. Can nuanced and heartfelt content be produced by an algorithm?

Maybe if the algorithm drives the production, rather than the copy. Derek Powazek of The Magazineer blog has launched MagCloud with HP Labs, a print-on-demand system specifically for magazine publishers. You upload a PDF to the site, print and circulate through mail or online orders, and collect royalties via PayPal. The project preserves the traditional format of magazines, but adapts to the demands of 21st century readers. Powazek asks,

"[W]hat if we could combine the best parts of the web (no waste, personalized content, open to all) with the best parts of print (sexy print quality, permanence, no batteries required)?"

The further we move away from the printed page, beyond the Kindle and the Nook, beyond, even, the upcoming Tablet, the more letters we etch into magazines' gravestone. There may be commercial success in transitioning from the glossy page to the screen, if one of the ideas like the media giants' merger works, but then what's to stop the line between all digital journalistic content blurring beyond recognition? Does it matter if magazines' defibrillation keeps them alive, if in so doing we destroy their identity as distinguished from newspapers, newsletters, blogs, citizen journalism sites?

So maybe I shouldn't have caved. Maybe I joined the funeral procession by ending my print subscriptions. I remain as avid a reader of my favorites. But convenience, lack of time, and (yes, a monthly $6.24 can really add up) financial straits have converted me to an online consumer of them. It's a measure of our Digital Age's accelerating hoofbeats that even someone as invested in magazines as me conceded defeat. But I still haven't bought a Kindle.

1 comment:

  1. you can tell that the tablet computers are also trying to reconcile the changing times - they've kept the sound of the pages flipping in their digital Sports Illustrated!