Yesterday, we got some very bad news about a legendary magazine and the future of journalism. Or did we?
New York magazine, an award-winning weekly that has chronicled news and arts for decades, announced that starting in March it will go biweekly, publishing 26 issues a year. It was cause for consternation: “If New York cannot hack it as a weekly,” Andrew Sullivan wrote, “no magazine can.” (Disclosure: TIME is a weekly. Still! As far as I know!) It was cause for triumphalism: “We were not joking when we told you thousands of times that print is dead,” wrote Hamilton Nolan in Gawker. And in the New York Times’ report, it was taken as a larger sign of distress in journalism: “something palpable and intrinsically thrilling will be lost with the change in rhythm to a magazine that has been hitting the streets on a weekly basis for more than four decades.”
Except! That same Times story noted that New York is not laying off staff; in fact, it will be hiring staff for the magazine’s already busy website. It will plow the savings from printing less often into digital publishing. As a magazine–a physical thing–New York may be cutting back. As a news organization, it is–for now at least–growing. Palpable? Maybe not. But at least potentially thrilling.
All this illustrates something we need to remember when we talk about the media business, its changes, and its (very real) problems paying for itself. The physical form of journalism is not the journalism itself.
A little religious digression here. I’m Jewish–a bad, secular Jew, but Jewish nonetheless–but my dad was Catholic and I went to church as a kid. One thing that they used to impress on us was the difference between a church (the building) and The Church (the institution, the faith). One is physical, one metaphysical; one is bricks and mortar, one is constituted in the people who practice it.
Likewise with journalism. I love New York magazine. I’d be crushed if it went away. But right now I have more of it than I ever did: the paper magazine, yes, but also the dozens of posts (not just quick hits but longform reporting, criticism, interviews, and analysis) that appear on its website. New York–like the New York Times–exists for me whether it’s paper or pixels. Just as, for me, my work is my work whether I’m doing it it for Time magazine or (like 80-90% of my work for the past seven years or so) for time.com.
If people mourn the decline of paper, I don’t judge them. New York magazine is a classic of print design, co-founded by the great graphic designer Milton Glaser. Its thingness is not just important, it’s a part of New York City’s cultural history. But its thingness is not the journalism–the words, ideas, knowledge–itself.
Does that mean that journalism is just fine, in fact–with so many outlets rising up online–in better shape than ever? Let’s not get crazy. It matters that news outlets can pay for what they do. If you rely on news, it matters whether people can afford to spend their lives making a career of it.
Selling print ads and subscriptions remains the most lucrative way for written journalism (which often involves much more than writing) to pay for itself. You’d think that digital revenues would replace that income proportionately to the increase in digital readership, but they haven’t. (Advertisers pay much less per eyeball online, and the audience prefers not to pay at all.) Maybe they will, someday–that’s the dream, and digital money is at least increasing–but there’s no law that says it has to. If not, a lot of outlets, including seemingly successful online ones, could diminish or go away. If journalism largely becomes a hobby profession, or if it’s increasingly paid for in ways that leave it beholden to sponsors and powerful benefactors, all that matters.
So the problems of print are related to the problems of professional journalism. But it’s important to remember that the two are not the same. Information is a social need. Paper is an aesthetic preference. So if the news about New York magazine means that I get more of it, but digitally, I’m happy for now. I like the New York I can hold in my hands. But what really matters is the New York state of mind.