Thursday, December 2, 2010

Magazines as Culture

I've written extensively about how magazines are a very good lens through which to view developments in various countries, particularly in China (see  In the U.S. it took the better part of fifty years for magazines to shift from being broadly general-interest to having more of a special-interest focus, matching the changes in demographics, income, leisure time and wealth. After all, consumers probably wouldn't have much interest in health, fitness or sports magazines if they remain, in Maslow's words, pinned down at the safely level.

I've published magazines and digital businesses in twenty countries and found the above trajectory generally true everywhere.  In every country or region I have observed the transition from general to special-interest titles has taken less time than in the states. As late as 1995 in China the bulk of the many thousands of magazines were gray, faceless products that served as an arm of the government's formidable propaganda machine.  Go to Beijing or Shanghai today and the fashion, service, auto, health, and even psychology magazines will seem indistinguishable from their Western counterparts. To be sure the long arm of censorship--or more correctly, self-censorship--is still more or less enshrined in law there. However, unlike news or business magazines that write about sensitive subjects, special-interest magazines stay with the safer subjects.  Make no mistake about it these magazines nonetheless serve as a projection of Chinese self-confidence and self-worth.  After all, magazines reflect the national psyche and even censorship can't completely hinder that celebration.

A couple of weeks ago NYT columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece on the role of general-interest print magazines in U.S culture, using as his starting point the merger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, a marriage that seemed to be greeted by the sound of one hand clapping.  Brooks reminds us that general-interest magazines were a by-product of the Emersonian push for self-improvement. He writes: "This ethos shaped the American news media for more than a century. Poor families scratched together their dollars to buy an encyclopedia, to join the Book of the Month Club, to buy Will and Ariel Durant's 'Civilization' series or the Robert Maynard Hutchin's Great Book."

In Brooks' view a generation ago everything seemed to change and general-interest magazines began to pay more attention to the readers themselves than to cultural issues. Then came the inevitable segmentation by interest and desire hastened by technology. Just as Twitter and Facebook to this list, and you have a perfect recipe for a National Solipsism.

I started my day reading about Flipboard's plans to get beyond offering an enhanced RSS feed to something that will look and feel more like a "social" magazine. This seems like an elegant idea even though I might end up with my highly personalized, individualized magazine of one, a future many of us in the media have hoped and planned for.

I was thinking about Brooks' proposition while I was reading the current issue of TIME in which Managing Editor Rich Stengel interviews Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. It is a remarkable interview, not necessarily because it sheds additional light on the recent leak of diplomatic cables.  This is service journalism at its best and the service provided is a wonderful look at how a free press and engaged citizens should operate when governments continue to grow in power and secrecy.

If high schools in America are still teaching courses in Problems of Democracy, this should be required reading. Toss the textbook and listen to Stengel and Assange, two really good teachers, address some of the most serious issue of the day with a sobriety and seriousness that Brooks would surely applaud.  


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