Friday, October 18, 2013

Meditating on the New Republic of Magazines

I was in Grand Central Station in New York, looking to break a twenty-dollar bill, so I purchased a copy of The New Republic for five dollars.   The cover art, promoting the “books won’t die” cover story, shows the reedy outline of a hard-cover book, appearing both digital and ghostly at the same time, on a green background.  I will forgive the publisher for the “50 Shades of Green” throwaway line in the lower left corner.  I have now carried this title for more than a week, dipping into it, tasting the poetry, learning how I might be writing the wrong type of books, and what a secessionist American might look like with its 61 states.  I’ll continue to dip into this treasure, a refreshing departure from the usual political cant, and will likely take her on an upcoming trip to Europe.

I read a lot of magazines, many I have worked for directly or been a part of the corporate operations.  And I go to them like an ex-lover, confident and hopeful that I won’t be surprised.  This is not criticism.  I go to Bicycling, Prevention, Men’s Health, Organic Gardening, Runner’s World and other titles for the comfort food and not necessarily for the hot surprises that will burn my tongue.  I go to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Scientific American, Harpers and the like for my soul food.

MPA, the magazine media association, and where I worked for seven years, has long promoted the essential consumer value of magazines as a “time-out,” suggesting both an existential and psychological quiet space.  However, this well-researched truth has at times been shunted to the side by the clarion call of digital, carving up our time, our sentences and words.  I play in this sandbox and know the digital parsing of my psyche will continue.  

During the recent government shutdown, I grew weary of and largely abandoned broadcast television, news sites such as the Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, as well as a favorite of mine, Time Magazine.  My weariness was certainly brought on by the collective noise but more so by the simplistic arguments, the inevitable “on the one hand, and on the other” arguments that satisfied the demands of Semantics 101 but did little to shed light on the massive reductionism on display in our public square.    

I am, of course, at the mercy of the algorithm that follows my keyword passions and indelicacies and now even more so as Google gets closer to my dark side with its “dark search” capabilities.  In a way, I am engaged in a kind of psychological self-voyeurism, following the digital crumbs that make me crazy and enjoying every minute of it.  Psychologists call this being caught in a complex.   I keep scratching that bugger of an itch, long and hard enough for me to see blood.  The current Bloomberg Businessweek must know all this because it features on the cover a very sinister Senator Ted Cruz as the Mad Hatter who, along with his band of dead-enders, took the US through the Looking Glass, arriving bloodied but unbowed on the other side, looking like a discarded Halloween mask.   Magazine covers are such a wonderful way to capture a politician’s trek from tragic to farce.

Magazines also have a penchant for capturing the shadow side of a debate, finding another reality separate from the horse race and “cloud-of-dust” football metaphors that plague our political coverage.  The Atlantic Magazine is a good example of this, as is its sister site The Atlantic Cities, which recently ran an article by Editor-in-Chief Richard Florida entitled “What the Shutdown Revealed about the Economic Divides in U.S. Politics.”  This should be required reading.

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza had previously published a map about the 76 members of the so-called “suicide caucus” who shut down the government.  The Atlantic builds on this, also using data from the Martin Prosperity Institute, and reminding us that the findings suggest correlation, not causation.  The states with higher shares of the suicide caucus districts tend to be less advantaged, less affluent, and less educated.  They also tend to have the largest share of uninsured citizens in the districts.  They also have fewer of the creative class members, including scientists, technologists, artists and media workers.  They are not a robust part of the knowledge economy.  They are less diverse and less urban.   A letter to The Atlantic puts this in perspective: “A minority of Americans seem committed to a past that never quite existed and hope for a future that seems rather unlikely.” 

The Atlantic Cities presents a less romantic view, suggesting the suicide caucuses largely representing areas in the Deep South and Appalachia are intent on “maximizing power of provincial white elites at a time when their numbers are in decline and history has turned against them.”   As Rolling Stone Magazine examined earlier this year, gun manufacturers are facing similar shifts in the same demographic, perhaps explaining the heated and existential nature of the gun control debate.  Both examples suggest a serious demographic splintering and seem to cry out for a shift in the political debate.  We mind find some hints in William Faulkner’s novels and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where a few Tea Party originals are said to reside.

While at the recent PRIMEXEAST conference, organized by IDEAlliance, I attended a luncheon keynote by Michael Clinton, President, Marketing and Publishing Director, Hearst Magazines and Chairman of MPA.   Hearst seems to be hitting on all cylinders, given its successes with its latest launches, Food Network and HGTV with Scripps, and the expectations for Dr. Oz, The Good Life, coming in February 2014.  The company has integrated digital throughout its operations as well as any publisher.  Hearst’s Esquire, with its December 2012 edition, has been a leader with its idea of “Live Paper,” the first truly interactive magazine where every single page is enabled for social sharing and saving.  This issue is appropriately described as a collector’s item on eBay and priced accordingly.

Of course, imagining magazines as second screens and making every page interactive is not easy or inexpensive.  But it does show how comfortable and fluent publishers have become with digital.  Everything is possible.  I know where to go when I want my magazine pages populated with QR codes and functionality for Augmented Reality.

But if I want to understand the new rules of trash book publishing or the inner life of novelist Willa Cather or how to find religion without God, this month I will settle in with The New Republic.   I will definitely stay awhile because I want to imagine my place in the 61 States of America.  If The Atlantic Cities is right about the underlying causes, the country might be closer than we think.  Psychologically speaking, for some of our citizens, they already inhabit that new republic. 

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