My love affair with print magazines began in India, where, as a teenager, I launched a cyclostyled publication called The Threshold. It didn’t last beyond two issues—mercifully, I should add, for those unsuspecting recipients of my outpourings—but the manual process of cutting stencils for multiple copies was so laborious that it made me, in not merely a figurative sense, an ink-stained wretch. Though I quickly (and wisely) abandoned my literary yearnings for more practical paths, I never forgot my teenage crush, and years later, after some cautious detours, I found my way back to print.
But, I can’t help wondering, have I returned to print periodicals just as they are dying out?
In the digital era, does my job appear increasingly quaint, as if I’m still driving a buggy in the age of the automobile? If that fear seems exaggerated, consider the American newspaper industry. The wrenching changes that are wreaking havoc there would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. So does this mean print publications will become as outdated as videocassettes and floppy disks in the not-too-distant future? I’m neither a Luddite nor a Pollyanna, but I think it’s safe to say this won’t happen.
Despite the shrinking space for print in a media world that’s increasingly internet-driven, and the rising popularity of electronic gizmos like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, periodicals will survive—even thrive—because they are, as I like to think, SMART. It’s an acronym that sums up their advantages in five words: Simplicity, Mobility, Accessibility, Readability, and Tactility.
This is not to deny that circumstances are different today. Especially when it comes to hard or breaking news, as opposed to analysis and feature stories, the internet’s strengths are all too obvious. What’s poignantly ironic is that none other than print publications are most effectively covering the print medium’s ongoing crisis. It’s a fast-changing landscape and, admittedly, one cannot predict how things will shake out in the long run. Radio, television, or print cannot afford to have an independent existence outside the highly interactive, all-encompassing online world. With its insatiable appetite, the internet tends to swallow everything.
For any teenager starting a magazine today, the Net is a no-brainer. It’s like a pond for ducks. Actually, as many bloggers would agree, the Net is more like a sea for fish. “Let a millions blogs bloom,” to tweak Chairman Mao’s famous exhortation, is such an understatement. As of last June, according to Technorati, there were almost 113 million blogs and over 250 million pieces of tagged social media.
The internet’s awesome capability (you can reach anybody living anywhere at a minimal or no cost) turns out to be, perversely, a daunting challenge for writers and would-be writers. With so much chattering going on everywhere, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch other people’s attention or, indeed, properly hear what they are saying. It’s like being in a room where everybody is talking insistently and incessantly. LISTEN, appropriately enough, is an anagram of SILENT.
While it’s true that any enterprising individual with a laptop—not to mention a cellphone that doubles as a camera—has the potential of being a roving journalist, factors such as talent, accuracy, relevance, investment, “fairness” and, not least, readability will continue to determine whether the content is worth our attention. When radio gained mass appeal, commentators were lamenting the imminent decline, if not demise, of print. As we know, not even the proliferation of cable and satellite TV channels has stopped the spread of print periodicals, especially in countries like India and China. As the Pew Research Center’s “2009 State of the News Media” report points out, “the notion that traditional journalism is on the brink of extinction is overstated.”
Personally, here’s the reason I feel so hopeful about the future of print publications: I like my companions in bed to have a corporeal presence. If this sounds mildly risqué, let me explain. Yes, we can take a laptop or an e-reader to bed, but frankly, that seems more like work than relaxation, particularly if one has already spent several hours in front of a computer screen. I’d rather leaf through a stack of periodicals or read a book. Electronic signals are not sexy; paper and ink, on the other hand, are like flesh and blood.
A lot of casual reading, it’s been said, is done in and on the three B’s (bedroom, bathroom, beach).
Backyards and buses, along with waiting rooms and living rooms, would be other examples of such print-friendly places. To sum up, even though print periodicals no longer enjoy their once-unchallenged dominance in the media world, they will continue to play a major, even indispensable, role in the foreseeable future. May they live long!
Murali Kamma is an Atlanta-based writer and editor.