Print IS Dying, but Do We Have an Alternative Yet?

This year, February has been "the cruelest month." Word got out about a new and infuriating installation procedure that Microsoft intends to use in its upcoming Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler) OS, and a hacker propagated a free intelligence test called "Anna Kournikova.jpg" over the Internet. (All together now: "Don't open file attachments you don't expect—or check with the sender before you open them.") I'm inclined to react vitriolically to the Windows XP install routine, but not this month; one shouldn't write a column while angry. Instead, let's consider a prevalent phenomenon: magazine anorexia.

I've known that electronic alternatives would eventually replace or supplement printed pages—after all, the science fiction I've read since my childhood in the 1960s taught me that. However, it wasn't until I saw a once-successful magazine actually die—a "death by electronic alternatives"—that the implications began to sink in. And I worry: Are we ready for the death of pulp yet? In mid-1999, I was checking out of an Office Depot when I noticed a stack of Computer Shoppers. For as long as I can remember, Computer Shopper was a huge periodical—even the Manhattan-phone-book cliche didn't do Computer Shopper justice. But I hadn't looked through one for a couple of years and was unprepared for its emaciated state. Computer Shopper was downright skinny. I had, as Avery Brooks says in the IBM commercial, an epiphany.

But not that large an epiphany. After all, what publication would the presence of a searchable online marketplace (i.e., the Web) injure more than one dedicated to selling technological items? Computer Shopper practically had "Web, please put me out of business" tattooed on its forehead. So I figured, "Sorry to see you go, Shopper, but your death won't affect the other things that I read." However, it's looking more and more like I was wrong.

Next, I noticed that general-interest computer magazines looked weaker. Windows Magazine's print edition disappeared; the once fat-and-sassy PC Magazine seems to dwindle in size with every issue. But they're computer magazines, so again it makes sense, right? Not necessarily. Two other magazines that I read regularly (or will as long as they last) are Discover (a popular science magazine) and Newsweek. Neither one's a computer magazine, but they're both going for the Kate Moss look. Some publications are unaffected—for example, Fast Company and our own Windows 2000 Magazine—but print magazines in general seem to be in serious danger of disappearing.

The logical alternative source for magazine information is, of course, the Web plus some kind of AvantGo-like Web-to-Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) synchronizing tool. I can gather enough current events information to replace Newsweek and probably almost enough general science information to replace Discover—if those two publications die and if I have the patience to surf the World Wide Wait. But once they're gone, will the Web be a decent substitute? I hardly see how.

Magazines are colorful, engaging, and easy to read even outside in bright light. Nothing electronic that I've seen or heard of comes within a mile of glossy paper for readability and flexibility. Magazines appear in the mailbox with no wait time and require no battery power. When I'm about to go to the airport, I just grab the latest issues of Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, Discover, and Newsweek, stuff them in my case, and go. In contrast, an imaginary future portable e-magazine replacement would require that its batteries be recharged every day or so. I'd have to wait for new issues to download—advertisements and all, so I'd either need to find a way to hook my magazine replacement up to the Internet or pray for an as-yet-not-developed fast technology for wireless Internet access. I probably wouldn't take the time to do that for my four magazines, should they go totally electronic. (And it would be annoying not to be able to read them during takeoff and landing.)

Perhaps most troubling of all, however, is that when the e-dust settles and we live in a world of only electronic magazines, I suspect we will find that certain types of content have disappeared or been severely curtailed. For example, in the first half of the 20th century, the United States had a number of periodicals—such as the Saturday Evening Post—that supported a rich variety of short stories and novellas. TV drained their market, and they disappeared, or nearly so. (And yes, I know that Esquire, Redbook, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker still run some short fiction, but the sum total is far less than it was when the country had half the population it has now.)

I don't doubt that between 5 and 20 years from now we'll have a pretty good electronic alternative to magazines, an easily portable, solar-powered magazine-sized display in combination with some kind of so-fast-you-don't-notice-it electronic distribution service. But we don't have it today, and I'll bet that many current paper magazines won't survive that 5-to-20-year period. Will anything fill that gap? Newspapers might gain new audiences for general information and printed entertainment, leading to increased subscription rates and more varied newspaper content. Or we might learn to live with the limitations of low distribution speeds by reading our information over text-only channels, as you can do today with Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) devices and wireless PDA modems. The lack of graphics and formatting makes for less interesting content, but at least we'd still have the content (although I find that handheld devices still make me wait too long for the small spurts of text they provide). TV could theoretically fill in as a mobile news source, but oddly enough TV is no longer "mobile." Most of its news content is only available via cable or satellite, and I'm not yet ready to carry around a Watchman with its own satellite dish.

The most probable outcome? I'd guess that we'll all just bite the bullet and use our PDAs to grab our magazine reading—lousy screens, annoying downloads, and all. The folks at AvantGo will probably have to run the largest server farm in the world just to keep up with everyone synchronizing at the same times. And for that 10 minutes of takeoff and landing? I guess I'll just have to start talking to the person next to me.

Of course, the absolute biggest problem is where good content would come from if pulp disappears . . . but that's a topic for another month.

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