Gay Talese’s Basement
Don’t Write the Obituary Yet
reasons why magazines are here to stay
For decades, we have been hearing about the death of print. The looming threat of the Internet replacing our beloved “dead tree” format has struck the publishing industry with forebodings of doom. “The death of print is going to happen far sooner than many of you may think,” Dan Okrent, then an editor-at-large of Time Inc., told an audience of Columbia journalism students in 1999. “Print is dead,” George Squires, the president of Sports Illustrated, said at a conference in November 2004. About one year later, blogger Jeff Jarvis, once a print man himself, said, “Print is where words go to die.”
I disagree. Magazines are here to stay, and here are five reasons why:
In this schizophrenic age of sound bites, podcasts and other dense packages of ephemeral information meant to appeal to our increasingly attention-deficient culture, magazines are a place where we can slow down and read something of substance. The Internet moves too fast for writers who want to create substantial, involved pieces that synthesize experiences to point to some greater truths or trends. Although many magazines have reduced the lengths of their articles, there remain a few prestigious ones that allow writers to take a longer view and work on stories for months at a time.
Because the Internet refreshes itself constantly, it’s great for up-to-the-second news or opinion from your favorite blogs; but it doesn’t lend itself to timeless journalism. For example, it is unthinkable that a piece of the caliber and length of John Hersey’s sprawling “Hiroshima,” published in The New Yorker in 1946, would ever come out of the Internet.
2. Magazines are to have and to hold
There is something pleasurable about being able to hold a magazine, feel its weight and touch the smoothness of the paper. Computers, on the other hand, are not much fun to carry around. Their screens tire our eyes, making us read more slowly. Plus, computers are cold and metallic, and in most of our minds they signify work rather than leisure. When was the last time you snuggled up in bed with your laptop? How about lugged it to the bathroom?
Not only are paper magazines portable, they make a promise that Internet magazines can’t keep: They will be there when you want them. Some webmaster with a mouse can click away your favorite articles, relocating them to the outermost reaches of cyberspace, or he can remove them altogether. Holding a magazine reassures us that it is ours, and that we control its location and physical state.
We live in a time when almost everything can be done virtually: We shop for groceries, buy clothing, get graduate degrees, meet eligible mates and have laparoscopic surgery, all via cyberspace. Real physical encounters are dwindling as technology becomes more sophisticated, and thus there is value in being able to touch something and have a sense of its physicality. Because they are cultural artifacts, magazines are best enjoyed as three-dimensional objects. It is the same reason we prefer to visit museums and see the physical works—or go to the churches, palaces, plazas or caves where wall paintings or sculptures can be seen in situ—instead of looking at photographic reproductions in textbooks or online. Paintings that look small in reproductions may be huge in actuality; likewise, there are many facets of magazines that we would miss if they were to exist exclusively online. Although they are machine-made objects, magazines have some variation of the “aura” the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about (“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”). Or perhaps it is the interaction we have with magazines—unique to a particular time and place in our lives—that has the aura.
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