Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why we're killing ourselves to save print magazines

Why we're killing ourselves to save print magazines
By Raymond Roker

I promised myself that I wouldn't get too sentimental as I write my 150th issue Diatribe. And just as that self-imposed moratorium left me to assemble a list of unemotional, but interesting factoids and historical anecdotes, I got an all-too-familiar piece of electronically delivered news: Print is doomed!

Here's how the future of print was summed up in the article:

"Print as a medium will ultimately fade away, just as parchment became paper, the typewriter gave way to the pc, and the waxed cylinder morphed into the record, then the compact disc, and now the digital download. The first to go will be newspapers, but over time magazines and even books will follow. And not only will they be distributed digitally (read: without paper), and accessed through a variety of devices - some mobile, some not - they will most likely be free. Not this year or next, maybe not even within the span of a decade, but surely in our lifetime. Your trusty copy of The New York Times that stains your hands with ink, your Vanity Fair with Leo DiCaprio on the cover, your dog-eared copy of the bestseller Skinny Bitch will all become museum pieces, bought and sold on eBay as collectibles, or tossed into landfills." -Adam L. Penenberg, Media Magazine, October 2007

But wait, I love magazines! I love print, period. These days, this plaintiff declaration is like saying "I love album art." Nobody, besides our friends at the exquisite-but also doomed-Wax Poetics, can hear your screams. As a fan of record sleeve art, you can cite all the intrinsic lore, the romance, the vital role it plays in user experience, blah, blah, blah. All the while, as you drone on about the classic 12" works of wonder, somebody's downloading another tiny JPEG of 'album art' into their iTunes. And the beat goes on. Virtually.

But, ****; I really love magazines. I mean I know the industry is hurting right now. Hell, URB surely isn't immune to the bruising. Advertising revenues for 99% of the magazines out there have declined (some, dramatically) and newsstand sales have dropped too. This year alone saw FHM, Stuff, Scratch, and a bunch of others you've never heard of, all shut down. Web 2.0 is the new, new media, and people are spending more time with texting than reading text. 20th Century ink on paper just isn't as "sexy" to a lot of people, not the least of which are the advertisers who pay for me to even have a page to spill on. The magazine industry, like record labels, has already seen its best days. And like passengers on a sinking ship, all civil order has broken down and competition for life vests is fierce.

But I can't be bothered with all of this conventional wisdom and unimaginative doom and gloom. And like the cooler edges of the music industry, independent magazine publishers are creatively staving off their demise with innovation, perseverance and gravitas. We are a resilient bunch, if not downright bullheaded. I'm not arguing the facts or even the future, but, today, I'm more excited about print-and this magazine-than I have been in a long while.

Of course, I'm biased. I'm a voracious consumer of all things paper. I fuel up at a newsstand like some commuter junkie at a Starbucks, easily dropping $80 at a time on gorgeous bound journals I never get time to read. But touch them, I do. I lay them on my coffee table or file them into plastic holders. I let them pile up on my nightstand and shove grotesque amounts of them into my carry-on luggage. I treat them like artwork and they take up more room in my house than clothes. I flip the pages, feel the coating of the cover. Gawk at the images, the headline fonts, and detailed illustrations. I go to my happy place and shoot up the lush pulpy pages like I might never get high again.

Note: I doubt most of you share this level of affection, and that's OK. The fact that you're even 600 words into this rant let's me know that you at least get a little tingle at the local Barnes & Noble newsstand. So what's keeping print so inventive and refreshed these days?

Definitely, part of the surge is that there's blood in the water. And that's a good thing. Weak publications are thankfully retiring and making room for genetically stronger breeds . . . hell, mutts! Opportunistic and dispassionate publishers are steering clear of print entirely. Culturally deaf and dumb-downed titles are imploding. And after several years of denial, many in the industry are finally embracing the Web as an ally to their editorial missions.

There's nothing better than a technological mugging to get your head straight. The first dotcom onslaught was a de facto war against print. But the rise of Web 2.0 has actually given magazine publishers new creative license, allowing us to actually be less disposable than before-even in the era of Facebook and Twitter. Everybody from stalwart monthlies to esoteric quarterlies are getting tricked out with new paper stocks, die cut covers, limited edition versions and metallic inks-none of which look good on an LCD monitor. Not to mention the most meaningful evolution: dramatic new takes on content and editorial packaging (You have to have noticed it with us).

Mass is dead, but so is niche. Localism is the new global. All-you-can-eat megazines are calcifying. But discerning curatorial adventures and brave points of view have become print's inoculation-at least temporarily-against the algorithmic efficiency and "long tail" (Google it) of the digital world.

Is this all just the last ditch throes of a Jurassic medium about to go the way of hip-house? Personally, I think it's more than simply sheer preservation, but who cares. At this moment, magazines are alive, fighting and kicking, and the reader is the beneficiary. From Journal (a soft spoken chance find picked up at a bodega in the East Village) to Good (a sharp, fast-rising noble effort by a trust fund kid), to Colors (doing for Skate culture what Wax Poetics does for music), to Metropolis (big, bold, beautiful manmade objects), and numerous others titles I devour, I've been inspired on each recent trip to the newsstand and mailbox. And if I'm drinking ink-colored Kool-Aid at the table of the industry's Final Supper, pass me another glass.

Which brings me to us. In your hands-and OK, maybe soon, on your iPhone-you hold URB's 150th issue. I could fill an entire edition with the triumphs, tears and ambition that got us this far, but I'll save that for my blog or an e-book I'll feel compelled to write someday. In the meantime, we're here. Still. And for all those who say print is doomed, that's just music to my ears.