Funny conversation at lunch today. Kirk asked me if any of the major media — as in the monolithic entities, not the individual parts — got it. By it, of course, he meant new media. Or as we like to call it, digital entertainment technology.
It didn’t take me long to analyze the various mediums and come back with a solid answer. “No,” I said. “None of them get it.”
Now, you could argue that “it” is one of those things that moves so fast that getting it is a nearly impossible task. I recall my boss’s boss telling me that video-on-demand was a fantasy — he’d been hearing about it since he’d started working in the motion picture industry. And he had a good twenty years on me. Even then, when we had that conversation (well over five years ago), it wasn’t a technology thing, it was a mindset thing. Old media reacts to change much as a two-year reacts to spinach. Locked jaws and temper tantrums. No way, no how, are they going to try anything new.
I was reminded of this conversation when I read about the new face of the, ahem, Very Serious Magazine. These magazines remain, guarding the gates of the intelligensia in a way that would be quaint if it weren’t so disturbing.
“We’re all sort of the anti-blogs,” says Roger Hodge, the new editor of Harper’s. “And I think we will eventually triumph over the blogs!”
No, sweetie, you won’t. But your optimism is cute even as you reveal your cluelessness. It isn’t the blogs that you should be worrying about; they’re a mere cog in a giant new media wheel. It’s everything and more. It’s the notion that Very Serious means eschewing the Internet that will kill you, and Hodge, like all Very Serious editors, needs to face the fact of shrinking dollars. Rich, indulgent patrons are few and far between — believe me, I’ve looked.
The four leaders of the Very Serious contingent — The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Harper’s — have undergone major editorial changes in the past year, though, if one looks at the photo accompanying New York’s story, you’d think maybe there’d been a little cloning experiment going on in the closet by the printing press. Apparently, dark-haired white males are the new radical.
The Atlantic continues to lock its content behind a print subscribers-only wall. The New Republic offers “selected” stories from the print edition. The Paris Review teases with excerpts before telling me I have to buy the whole issue to read one interview with Joan Didion (I’d be happy to pay a small amount for this alone, no need to send me anything else). Harper’s website is so retro, it would be cool if it weren’t so precious.
Each of these Very Serious magazines is telling me the same thing: you want us, you gotta get us in paper. The hip, and I use the word advisedly, young (ditto — it ain’t about age, baby, it’s about attitude) editors are, as evidenced by Hodge’s proud proclamation, going to remain locked into an inflexible model. As other media — from newspapers to music — are learning, rigidity is the death knell for old media.
Now I might want to receive hard copies of The Paris Review, but I’d prefer to access The New Republic online. Unlike the literary cycle, the news cycle moves too fast for print publishing. And while it’s surely crass to note this, the soon-to-be-defeated political blogosphere could expand TNR’s readership by using this cool new concept called “linking”.
There’s a lot of buzz about Web 2.0, mostly from people who don’t really know what it means (and I confess that, like all evolving concepts, I can’t say for sure that I have a solid definition), but one thing is clear: the new web is about community, remixability, and interactivity. Our four Very Serious magazines remain mired in the nineteenth-century model of information: we’ll tell you what to think.
To which I’d add, “Okay, if you’re around long enough to do that.”