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.
Print’s fatal flaw is that it is wasteful by any environmental measure. The gravest problem is the newsstand, but even subscriber copies carry a carbon burden. We’ve cut trees and released greenhouse gases to print them, while screen displays require far fewer resources. Shouldn’t print be permitted to croak to save the planet?
To a degree, the honest answer is yes. Just as there’s no reason to print phone directories, there’s no reason to print certain magazines. If it can be done better on screen, it shouldn’t be in print. This doesn’t mean that all magazines need to disappear, only that publications must justify their use of printing.
Some of the criteria crucial for print are: reflective treatment of subject matter; powerful visuals; a need for consistent, accurate color reproduction; a large format; long-form writing; an audience disinclined or unable to use screens; tactile elements, including advertiser gimmicks; coverage of an inherently serial topic; and presentations that rely on graphic juxtaposition.
As physical objects, magazines are tremendously satisfying. At their best, they are visual feasts that are both sequential (with pages we can turn at will) and spatial (with images that are, perceptually at least, larger and more beautiful than screens offer). There’s no need to bury all of them. But there is a need to evolve them into products that truly belong off the screen and in your hand—fewer titles, but ones that have honed their message to a medium that makes paper essential.
Are magazines objects or memberships? Great magazines give readers a sense of community and a sense of self. They are sources of identity. When it works, editor and reader connect. But that connection is changing today, and fewer people are defining themselves through the magazines they read. They’re veering away because other media are beckoning, and because other media treat the very idea of mediation differently.
With the tools in hand to make passable pages and pictures, many of us are prepared to subvert editorial judgment in favor of posting our own blog comments and videos. Getting our snapshots on Flickr is, to many of us, more satisfying than viewing a professional photographer’s photos. Fewer of us use magazines as memberships, where an editor focuses our collective interest, because we prefer to make our own decisions about what’s interesting. And what’s most interesting is what we make and say ourselves.
The impulse to self-publish is an interesting variant on our celebrity culture. Commanding an audience and living life in public is now a measure of self-worth. While we used to build identity through community and shared belief, now we do it by totaling up our page views to test our popularity.
The obituary here is for the paid journalist and editor. It’s not the printed page we reject, but the idea that a third party comes between us and the subject matter, to structure the engagement, direct our attention, scale the subject up or down, and control our impressions. At worst, the mediator is a propagandist who crushes our critical thinking. At best, the mediator helps us apply critical thinking by introducing us to information we never would have uncovered on our own.
Journalists find information, including facts others don’t want us to have, then help us understand the ramifications. The blogger tells us what’s on his mind. If citizen journalism is all that’s left, political discourse sinks to horse-race handicapping and flag pins. Financial insight is the unstructured remarks of people who like to hear themselves talk. And the thoughts and dreams of celebrities are dissected as if a bit of body language were a confession.
There’s a vast difference between seeking information and trusting a third party to suggest what’s worth knowing. Both a custom, online news feed and plain, old Web surfing will reward you with a narrow view of the world—you get what you know to ask for. But in a magazine, an editor tugs at your sleeve, saying, “You might find this interesting.” There may be hits and misses, but the key is trust. In exchange for your time, an editor gives you perspective, depth, surprises and connections. Without a third party to trust, we’re on our own, and we do little more than reinforce our existing prejudices.
For publishers, the problem stems from an overdose of giving the customer what he wants. Just as 6-year-olds would devise diets of ice cream and hamburgers, our magazine customers have pretty much said they don’t care for broccoli. But the publisher as parent can only scold or beg so much. After enticing readers with shorter and shorter pieces, punchier and punchier graphics, what’s a mother to do? If we’re saying farewell to rigorous journalism and thoughtful readers, we’re also agreeing that intelligence is uncool, elitist and shameful. Could the Achilles’ heel of technology be that we’ve come so far by making things easier that we avoid every effort, even the ones that are good for us?
The decision to read a magazine is like attending college. You’ll be prodded into a few required courses, have your share of electives, and encounter a range of teachers. You’ll draw conclusions and form opinions, but only after hearing some other points of view and being nudged toward unfamiliar ground. And you only come out with an education if you risked, at least once or twice, letting a teacher do the steering.
If mediation is potentially propaganda, it’s also the only chance we have to expand our horizons. We can’t interview Vladimir Putin, or sit in the bleachers for every no-hitter. We have to trust someone else to take us there. Trust feels risky in a world where the default posture is cynicism. But if a magazine editor is good enough to earn your trust, the rewards are enormous.
The death of professional editing is a much more serious problem than the death of printed objects. We need mediators to sift, authenticate, question, structure and examine the world for us. We can’t do it alone. We will always need focal points for identity, like the memberships that the best magazines offer.
Alex Brown is a consultant to magazine publishers specializing in manufacturing and magazine management. She founded her consulting company, Printmark, in 1984, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.