Master Manufacturer: The Death of an Editor?
There have been a lot of funerals for printed magazines lately, but I keep waiting for a eulogy that describes what exactly is being buried. There are three elements that are showing signs of mortality: the physical printed magazine, the role of editor as mediator, and the core magazine business model. The business model will have to wait for a future column, but now let’s look at the prognosis for the first two. On which grave should we leave the flowers?
The Physical Object
For the reading experience itself, no one prefers a screen to a magazine. What pulls us away from a printed magazine to a screen is the immediacy of the information transfer and the wastefulness of making and moving printed copies. But is it enough to put printing out of business?
Delivering information to a screen is spectacularly more efficient than making printed copies. Even better, the flow never ceases, the page boundaries dissolve, and the data can be searched, copied and moved. The experience is almost perfect, if you can just get over the rank clumsiness of the screen device and, it must be noted, the sheer uselessness of much information that’s shot out too hastily. (Speed in and of itself is not the prize—it’s the ongoing updating that’s the true boon.)
The progress in screens, from the Amazon Kindle onward, will move us toward a tipping point where screen clunkiness is counterbalanced by advantages in the speed and flow of information. But there are some subtle, instinctual aspects of reading that no screen is going to get quite right. There’s the awareness of where you are in the stream: with a magazine, your thumb and index finger pinch to tell you; with a screen, infinity is always a real possibility.
But, above all, there’s the interface: eyes and page versus eyes, batteries, protocols, buttons, tech support, lighting conditions, download parameters, etc. What screens are mimicking, we have taken for granted as the nature of reading, and in truth, screens can’t mimic it all. Print’s place is to reflect, review, compare and collect. Print hinges on adjacency, the before-and-after picture. Screens are sequential, but paper is side by side. The connections are visual and more naturally under the reader’s control than scrolling and clicking. If magazines are to survive as physical objects, it will be because they needn’t rely on speed—because, in effect, they counterbalance speed with contemplation.