Alright internet, it’s confession time. I have a dark, disturbing secret for a geeky tech blogger. But I just have to let it out. Okay, ready? Here goes.
I write for a magazine.
No, not a ‘magazine-like website’. I mean one of those things that’s made by smearing ink on ground up sheets of dead trees. Yeah, those things.
Because, to a lot of the tech world, it’s taken as truth that magazines are just backwards and obsolete and that they’ll be gone soon. And it’s a fact not lost on the makers of magazines themselves. In fact, they just launched a large advertising campaign to remind people of their worth.
Their argument? That while the internet is fleeting and chaotic, the magazine plows through all the noise to make sense of the world. The internet might be great, they say, but we still need magazines.
And very quickly, the internet responded. In particular, it was the Asylum who hit back hardest, with their own ‘Open Letter to Magazines‘, which asserted that everything magazines do “we can do better and faster”.
So who’s right? Are magazines still relevant? Or has the web made them relics of the past?
What the Internet Does Better Than Magazines
No, I’m serious. People always talk about how the internet is full of noisy junk and magazines are full of the good, clear stuff. This is what the magazine industry is arguing, right? The only problem is: It isn’t true.
See, today on the web, more people are writing than ever before – and it’s often people who would have never been published in the past. As a result, there’s a lot of junk out there.
But know that person who could write amazingly well but got a 9-5 job to pay the bills? They are writing on the internet now. The struggling writer who was good but could never find the right outlet? He or she is on here too. Plus all the journalists and writers who used to only be in print are also online, on their own blogs, their friends’ sites and writing stuff for, well, magazine and newspaper sites.
Sure, there’s a lot of junk online. But there is just more good writing in the world today because there are juts more people writing. So if you want to read a brilliant post about the relationship between the digital world and Plato you can. With no restrictions on space, bloggers can write beautiful long posts on whatever they choose. On top of all this, blogs like Kottke and Snarkmarket and 3 Quarks Daily are pointing people to smart, fascinating stuff every single day. It’s time to face facts: because of the web, there is just more good, smart writing in the world than there ever has been.
I love the magazine I write for. But I wrote a piece on Google pulling out of China in March. Know when it’s coming out? July. And it likely won’t go up online until August. That’s a problem, especially when a lot of important magazines are supposed to about ‘current events’.
Sure, weekly rags like the Economist and the New Yorker get on things more quickly. But compared to the web? Pfft.
And isn’t just about that classic internet impulse to be “FIRST!”. With so much information ricocheting around, we need the kind of analysis and insight we’ve traditionally associated with magazines more than ever, and more quickly than ever. And nothing beats the web for speed.
Communication and Community
Sure, the comments section of a lot of sites can be a little slice of internet hell. But it’s a significant step-up from the 4 or 5 letters to the editor of magazines. Having the kind of two-way communication goes a long way to forming a kind of community often lacking in print magazines, and brings up a step closer to an open, democratic dialogue between more people about more things.
To put it simply, the web has been an undeniable boon for our culture.
So Why Did We Ever Have Magazines?
So if the internet is so great, were magazines just a sort of ‘historical stop-gap solution’ until something better came along? Not quite.
See, magazines serve a purpose in our lives – well, three purposes actually:
- They allow for people with specific interests to have a in-depth publication dedicated to that interest instead of just one small column in a newspaper or something.
- If we relied on newspapers for up-to-date news and books for long, in-depth analysis, magazines were the perfect in-between size. They are a way of making sense of our world in a relatively compact and concise form.
- They are places for talent to gather around a common purpose. It’s great that thousands of people are writing on their own – but how great is it to have 20 really smart people all writing in one publication?
So, magazines have a specific function in our society: they are one way of relating to and making sense of our world in the time before history is written.
So, are magazines the dinosaurs of the media world?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because the economics and pragmatics of printing mags on paper is starting to seem impractical: it’s expensive and it’s slow and it doesn’t always offer demonstrably better writing or thought than you can get online.
But no because, well, maybe the magazine is more an idea about how to get ideas out than an actual physical thing. Maybe it isn’t about print vs. web, or tablets vs. paper, but about what a magazine represents to us.
After all, it’s about bringing together a team of people dedicated to understanding the world and then finding the best way to tell those stories that help us make sense of the contemporary moment. In the future, that will likely not involve paper. And hopefully it won’t be about a digital magazine with ‘animated page turns’ (ugh). But it will be about groups of people trying to take this giant mass of information we have access to and then saying something smart and useful about it.
And if you were looking for an example of the kind of innovation needed: Just this past weekend, a small team of editors and thousands of contributors produced a magazine in 48hrs. It was a project enabled by the internet that resulted in the creation something smart and relevant for readers of all kinds. And as a symbol of what the future needs, it’s a pretty good one: take the mentality and rigor of a magazine and meld it with the speed and efficiency of the web to make something great.
So are magazines obsolete? Well, if you mean cutting down trees and then printing stuffy ideas on pulp? Yeah, probably. But as an idea and method of bringing together smart people to say useful things about the world and the current era? Not on your life.