Byting the Hand That Feeds You

Publications are awkwardly migrating to the web. Are we letting them go too soon?



If you’re over 40, you’ve probably noticed that your newspaper has been getting smaller and thinner, that wire-service copy is replacing staff-reported stories, and that arts critics appear to have simultaneously contracted a disfiguring illness, because they’re nowhere to be seen.

If you’re under 40, all of this might have escaped your attention. You probably haven’t looked at a newspaper since you and the family dog played fetch with it; now you’re getting all your information from the web. In fact, you’re the reason newspapers are wasting away. Media companies are slashing spending to shore up profits that have declined with the departure of advertisers. Advertisers are in flight because of decreasing circulation. Meaning you.

Do I sound bitter? Okay, I’m bitter. The displacement of the daily news from hard copy to the Internet is inevitable with rising paper, postage, and fuel costs. But the transition is being forced in a spirit of nervousness rather than adventure, and the results are not good.
One day online news will mature into a beautiful medium, with laser-focused information, brilliant commentary, dynamic graphics, and convenient access from every corner of your life. Home delivery won’t mean a thump on your doorstep anymore; it’ll mean information beamed to your earrings or reflected in your bathroom mirror.

Right now, however, with a few important exceptions, newspapers are sad, leaflety things or anemic digital excuses. Even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are showing signs of strain both online and off, retiring scores of veteran reporters in the Times’s case and selling out to Rupert Murdoch, the industry’s version of Shiva, god of destruction, in the Journal’s.
Closer to my home in magazine land, there’s a similar drive to repudiate old-school hard copy and to direct publishing resources online. No one wants to be fossilized in a supposedly dying medium like print, so magazine publishers are also rushing for the gold in them thar pixels, even if they’re not sure how to mine it.

Frenzy is begetting frenzy; if you’re not hip to the digital you look frumpy and doomed. And there’s so much potential profit in the web’s near-bottomless audience that publishing barons (or the bankers who have assumed their roles) see less and less value in print magazines. Recently, F+W Publications, Inc., which owns I.D. and dozens of other periodicals as well as book companies, announced that it was changing its name to F+W Media to signal its commitment to the future.

Before we sing a dirge for print, however, we ought to consider the following:

History has proven that once an information or entertainment medium takes hold, it’s as hard to kill off as a termite colony. This is true not just of the classic examples—radio, theatrically released movies, and vinyl LPs—but also of scrapbooks and puppet shows. I could make a case that vaudeville never really died but has a direct descendent in reality-TV shows. Print is likely to be every bit as stubborn.
No magazine is published in a void; its editorial direction evolves in response to an audience’s discrete core of interests and values. Print magazines may seem stiff and slow, but their limited market reach means that readers are clustered close to their hearts. Meanwhile, web properties, which can interact with users in quick, nuanced ways, often give only the illusion of intimacy: Visitors wash up from all points of the network, frequently by way of search engines, bringing diverse interests and attitudes and relatively little commitment (after all, they’re usually not paying). Magazines can learn much about their web visitors, but it’s another matter to convert that information into a coherent editorial strategy.

Publishers fleeing print make little distinction among editorial categories. Car magazines, news magazines, quilting magazines—they’re all the same. But I’m convinced that designers in particular aren’t ready to give up the visual, tactile, and archival seductions of ink on paper.

Finally, print still drives the identity of publishing brands. What’s Vogue without that glossy 800-page brick? What’s The New Yorker without that illustrated cover and procession of cartoons? In my darker moments, I envision writing a book about this print-hostile publishing climate called Killing the Goose. But then I remember that the goose is a tough old bird.

ILLUSTRTION BY SCOTT MENCHIN

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