If you're reading this, it's a safe bet you read magazines. Technically, you may even be reading one now—though I'm not sure if bookforum.com really qualifies. The ".com" might denote precisely what isn't Bookforum. I'm typing onto a computer screen; you're reading from one. No trees have been killed. Are we in a magazine? I'm asking because I don't honestly know.
For now, let's say we aren't. If a magazine still is what it's been for almost three centuries—an ink-on-paper "storehouse" of writing, published on a regular schedule—then the "media industrial revolution" (to use Tina Brown's awkward phrase) is surely in the process of rendering many of our magazines obsolete. Seen historically, The Art of Making Magazines—a collection of twelve lectures by esteemed editors, proofreaders, designers, and writers delivered over the last decade to graduate students at the Columbia School of Journalism—may have barely made its deadline. (Future versions might be titled something like The Lost Art of…)
The book jacket promises a "rare, behind-the-scenes look" at how magazines work, paired with guidance about "how to parlay an entry-level position into a masthead title." But I would promote this anthology a little differently.
Although it certainly offers outsiders a "peek" inside the industry, with practical gems and gossipy nuggets scattered throughout, the anthology's main contribution isn't literary voyeurism or career advice, but almost the reverse. By inviting prominent magazine-makers to step out from behind their desks and talk openly about concerns they share (or want to share) with their readers, editors Victor Navasky (Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review) and Evan Cornog (dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University) have assembled a book that helps us reflect on what's actually a very public matter. By making what they call "not a how-to book, but… a how-to-think-about-it-book," they help us look at something we've probably been taking for granted: What is a magazine?
This question is often answered by describing the idiosyncrasies of print-magazine culture. If newspapers represent frenzied group-work and books are a slow, singular endeavor, then magazines offer a fertile middle ground. The late John Gregory Dunne starts the book's extended tribute to slower journalism by emphasizing what a great writer can bring to what might otherwise be mere reporting: an ability and inclination to address not just the who, what, where, when, and how—but the why.
Of course, the writer gets the byline, but they also get a lot of support. Robert Gottlieb notes that he strongly prefers a magazine's in-house copy editors, fact-checkers, and proofreaders to the freelance arrangements made in the book world. So much so that Gottlieb's favorite part of working at the New Yorker (which he edited from 1987-92) was an often crazy-making ritual wherein the legendary Eleanor Gould's proofs would be painstakingly reconciled with the copyeditor's proof, the checker's proof, the assigning editor's proof, the writer's proof, and the editor-in-chief's own proof. (Gottlieb refers to the process as a "fantasy of accuracy.") Glowing tributes to the New Yorker abound. In another chapter, Peter Canby, who now heads their famous fact-checking department, even proposes a "fact-checking theory of lit-crit," which states that original research plus rigorous interrogation of details and logic "not only gives the magazine its credibility, but also imparts a distinctive quality to the New Yorker prose."
Even so, this kind of editorial teamwork doesn't mean much if magazines don't maintain a unique and evolving connection with their readers. If books are bought out of singular interest and daily newspapers out of duty, then magazines establish a bond that has to be renewed—both literally and figuratively—on a regular basis. Editorial rituals therefore involve a constant courtship of subscribers, whose interests and standards magazines must at once share and subtly craft. At Seventeen, which is read by one in two teenage American girls, we learn that two full-time editors are tasked solely with responding to (often heartbreaking) letters from readers. A differently intimate arrangement presides at National Journal: Its 5,000 subscribers were apparently unfazed when annual rates jumped from $1,100 to $1,500—such is their commitment. Of course, this fealty goes both ways. On a commission for Playboy, Michael Kelly toured the country's burgeoning sex circuit, diligently describing the "sad men… engaged in a kind of dismal and pathetic pursuit," only to find out that the magazine had a specific word for such people: "our readers." Gourmet, for its part, faced crisis upon discovering that their enviably steady subscriber numbers actually meant they were fatally tied to an aging readership. (Ruth Reichl did her best, but they closed in 2009.)
Still other threats challenge the relationship between magazines and their readers. Chronicling the sad rise of the advertorial (where promotional material masquerades as reporting), Harper's publisher John MacArthur warns: "You should be greatly concerned by the notion that press freedom nowadays hangs not by a stout cord between publisher and reader, but rather by a more tenuous thread connecting advertisers and the media." And he would know: Pfizer withdrew "between $400,000 and a million dollars" worth of ads from Harper's because of an unflattering piece on depression medication. His magazine got by, but MacArthur is quick to point out that many others wouldn't survive such a blow. Nothing summarizes this predicament better than the grim binary of his chapter's title, "The Publisher's Role: Crusading Defender of the First Amendment or Advertising Salesman?"
Publishing regularly (and to any kind of standard) has always involved a complex alchemy, but the Internet's many free alternatives obviously endanger an already-delicate business model. Once an unchallenged means for establishing an invisible, implicit community of readers, magazines now compete with a vast proliferation of blogs, chat rooms, aggregators, subreddits, and social media. Several lecturers fret over the magazine's future in this environment, but if you believe Felix Dennis—who has made "hundreds of millions of dollars" publishing fifty magazines, most notably Maxim (a "lad mag") and The Week (a news aggregator)—the Internet is merely "the revenge of the reader." He assures his young listeners that "journalists, writers, and editors will still be employed at vastly inflated salaries" even when publishers, national distributors, and printing companies go under, because "talent, allied to craft, rules."
Neatly hidden in that "allied to craft," however, is the complex story this book's other contributors painstakingly unfold: how magazine writing is always allied to invaluable crafts like editing, fact-checking, design, fundraising, and marketing—and how that communal talent is, in turn, connected to a culture, and an economy, of paper.
Which brings us back to my original question: Are we currently in a magazine?
I think we're partly out of the cocoon, peeking around. Most magazines circa 2013 are both made of paper and not, so it's an awkward phase, with a lot of format confusion, content appropriation, and money problems. At the same time, it's a period of great innovation, with independent magazines, zines, and digital-only ventures getting more working space and often breathing life into the scene. This book leaves out those voices, but focusing on big magazines provides usefully broad hindsight on both the glories and limitations of the paper-bound age. As we navigate an ever-more-pixillated publishing landscape, we should work to preserve, and even improve, the best aspects of print culture. But when it comes to magazines, we'll also have to let a lot of it go, like last month's issue. It's bittersweet, to be sure, but such is the life of periodicals.
Dushko Petrovich is an artist and writer who teaches at Yale and RISD. He is a founding editor of Paper Monument.