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Why Tell Publishers Exactly What's Wrong With Newspapers and Magazines, When They Won't Listen?

Date/Time Permalink: 02/10/10 07:27:10 pm
Category: General

I was at the store today - yes, I eat groceries like normal people - and while waiting in line at the checkout, I pondered thumbing through a magazine. But I stopped in my tracks as I beheld the typical dreary selection. It looked just about like this:

magazine display

Look at it. Look at it! Discouraged, I returned to guard my cart empty-handed. Let me repeat: Rather than flip through a magazine for free for a few minutes while I waited for the register, I preferred to remain standing alone with the thoughts in my head.

So print media wants to know what it's doing wrong? Wake up! The Internet is not killing magazines by being cheaper. Nor is it because of convenience or fascination with shiny electronics. The Internet is killing newspapers and magazines by having better content. Now, don't get me wrong, the Internet also hosts some spectacular crap. But its high notes are far, far higher than anything I've found in a newspaper or magazine in a long, long time.

Those magazines on the rack... they are not reading material. They are wood pulp that has been tortured out of its will to live. They are constrained and fettered and chained down. Can you imagine, just a moment - let your imagination run free here - websites repackaged as magazines? Free opinions, challenging information, eye-opening revelations, risky humor, shocking and astounding artwork. But it can't have that.

  • A Best Of Wikipedia magazine? Nope, sorry, won't appeal to housewives in bunny slippers.
  • Controversial opinions? Egad, we'd chase away the sponsors! No Huffington Post Observer, then.
  • Uncensored treatment of sexuality? Good God, there's children running in the aisle! That excludes about 50% of what you could find on the web.
  • In-depth content on brainy subjects? Sorry, the USA is now remolded into Napoleon's "nation of shopkeepers." We have to dumb everything down some more as it is. So shove your Slashdot Weekly.
  • Progressive humor? You'll never even be able to sign a lease on Madison Avenue without your white, powdered wig! So much for the Wonkette Monthy Roasting Rack.

And I know whereof I speak; my first ambition was to be a writer. And so, back in the '80s, with a manual typewriter and a stack of creamy bond paper, and a copy of the Writer's Market, I tried to make it into print. Never did, even with years of trying. But now there's the Internet and, for whatever reason, I broke into that just fine, eventually selling my work to websites instead of magazines. Recently, I just picked up a copy of last year's Writer's Market and thumbed through it. I discovered two things: (a) I now get paid more for writing for the web than I would if I got into print in some of the top magazines out there, and (b) the mentality has not changed in 30 years; you still have to have the same thinking that would go along with a white, powdered wig just to break in.

Here, want to see what magazines in other countries look like? My favorite art blog in all the world, Deadlicious, has a category of mag covers. Scroll through a few pages (click 'older posts' at the bottom for more, and mute your sound to shut off that annoying damn Playlist widget). But just look at the mags! In places like France, Japan, and Britain, in recent decades, things like this were published. Even in the US in decades past, some rare, once-in-a-while bit of interest graced a corner of a newsstand for a brief moment.

They're mostly NSFW.

I guarantee you that everyone will find something there to be offended about. Deadlicious does not cringe from the trashy and pulpy.

They are not high-brow, sophisticated reading, for the most part.

I'll tell you what they do have, that's missing from the endcap of your local Ralph's: they're ALIVE! There's blood and pulse and breath in them. They are not instruction manuals for consumer zombies, made up like tasteful corpses and shrink-wrapped in little plastic coffins. These magazines displayed on Deadlicious have a body temperature of 98.2 degrees, and they laugh, cuss, and sweat.

Now of course, I know that the industry does not work that way. The mainstream websites are every bit as zombified as mainstream print media. Indeed, they are often put out by the same company. But the web allows me to fly off and find 999,999 alternatives, whereas if they put that many magazines in the store, there wouldn't be room for food. But print media can't fix that. What it can fix is to fight back by getting our attention again. That means challenging, startling, original, ingenious, compelling, interesting content - even if it's scary - and that's what print media will never do.

Can you name a single, solitary print publication where I could have gotten away with saying what I just said up here? Yes, I can. Alternative weekly newspapers - only some of them. And those that would print this, would fade away in a few years.

Saying all this in a Time article would be unthinkable. It would be the equivalent of Howard Beale in the film Network apologizing on live TV for running out of bullshit.

So, no, newspaper industry, you don't need us. We need us. We're doing fine, thanks. And the sooner you go out of business and we can replace that spot with more corn syrup and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil rotgut, the better.

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