by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 20, 2017
I’ve always been addicted to magazines. I even worked in a periodicals department at a university library for six years. Magazines used to provide reading content that was longer than a newspaper story but shorter than a novel. A good magazine essay might take more time to read than viewing a whole episode of the evening news. Reading some of the longest articles in The New Yorker or The Atlantic could take more time than watching a movie. However, as magazines compete more with television and the internet the content of each piece became shorter, no longer than the average crap or restless idle moment of internet boredom.
Even though I subscribe to a number of print magazines, get over 200 magazines via Texture, and subscribe to the online edition of The New York Times, I spend 90% of my periodical reading time on Flipboard.
Today I read “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” by Franklin Foer at The Atlantic. Foer was the editor of The New Republic and worked with Chris Hughes, a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur to save the historic magazine from the internet reader. The article comes from his forthcoming book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
Foer described what I’ve been seeing and wondering about already. Online journalism is not the same as the old print journalism I grew up with. Foer describes how writers and editors must write pieces that get massive hits on the web. Magazines of old had readers and subscribers and were sold as issues or subscriptions. Magazines were like albums, and today’s online essays are like buying hit songs on iTunes. To generate ad revenue essays must attract eyeballs. Most readers find their way to essays via Google searches or sharing on Facebook. So writers, editors, and publisher fine-tune each piece to get attention, and even the most serious pieces of journalism must act as click-bait.
Everything depends on unresistible titles. Writers write what titillate people into reading, rather than writing what people need to be reading. Reading Flipboard is like watching a thousand sharks being fed a barge of chum. Only the biggest creatures get fed.
Reading off my iPhone and iPad has ruined me for reading paper copies of magazines in the same way that they ruined me for reading newspapers. About once a year I’ll buy a copy of The New York Times for nostalgia’s sake. But it’s uncomfortable to hold, stains my fingers, and is stressful to my eyes. Last year I subscribed to National Geographic for the same nostalgic reasons, remember the magazine being visually stunning. Now, their printed images all look small compared to my 28″ 4K monitor and dull compared to my brightly lit iPad. Because I wanted to see the photographs enlarged, I subscribed to the online edition this year, and the pictures wow me, but I seldom read at my monitor even though it’s the absolute best way I’ve found to consume National Geographic content. (I just wish they’d stop their constant nagging to subscribe when I’m already logged in.)
My most common and convenient way I read periodicals now is on my iPhone 6s Plus. I always have my phone with me, and that convenience has made me addicted to reading by iPhone. I also read The New York Times on my iPhone, and listen to audio books from Audible on it too. It’s not the web that has changed my reading habits but the smartphone.
Foer warns us against the dangers of high tech journalism. I’m trying to go back to reading whole magazines, but it’s hard. Some magazines I loved like Discover and Popular Science are now laid out to like web pages, with countless short articles vying for my attention. Their tiny print and cramped layout are just too painful. I won’t re-subscribe. Scientific American is less frantic, an album of half-a-dozen long articles, but I’ve been ruined by the buy-a-hit-song mentality.
About a decade ago I gave up all printed periodicals for environmental reasons. Then a few years ago I decided to try print magazines again as an experiment to see what I’m missing from online reading. Their inflexible layout discourages me from reading them, and smartphone reading is now my habit. I’m letting all my subscriptions lapse except for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog. I’ve just resubscribed to these mags in print because I miss their covers, want to refer back to them, and never could develop the habit of reading their short stories when I subscribed to the digital editions.
And then there’s the sad fact that most non-fiction content in printed periodicals is available on the web for free. Foer describes the nightmare of trying to make money publishing journalism this way. To be honest, though, I resist all their money making efforts. I know online magazines need to make a profit but I find their methods annoying. Which is why I subscribe to Texture. My $15 a month is a contribution towards maintaining journalism. But it’s not the solution either. Texture doesn’t allow me to save and share articles like Flipboard. When I read something good in Texture I go to my computer, find the article and then share it on Twitter and Facebook, and save it to Evernote and Instapaper.
I wish Texture had a web edition. When I read for writing inspiration I’m sitting at the computer. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t train myself to read off the monitor. I tend to quickly churn through content via Flipboard. One of the complaints Foer noted was content was becoming homogenized. I’ve noticed that too. Each day I see several lists of the-greatest-books-ever to read, many kinds of advice on happiness, productivity, retirement, investments, etc.
I should read, take notes, save essays, write reviews, and become more interactive in my reading. I should integrate periodical reading into both studying and memorizing. One thing I’ve noticed from hyper-reading Flipboard is the repetitive nature of story ideas. When that dentist killed Cecil the lion it generated 3.2 million stories on the internet. I sometimes do that myself when blogging, writing essays about what other people are writing about. Internet journalism gets readers into subject frenzies and we can’t let go. I’m not sure if that’s good. I’m thinking I should be more organized and careful about what I read. Reading from the monitor instead of the smartphone might help in that. I thought returning to printed magazines would help, but it didn’t. I need to be able to save and share, and photocopying and mailing just too inconvenient.
I have friends that also compulsively read Flipboard daily. Some of them have started to wonder if it’s a bad habit or at least too much of a time-waster. I think Flipboard has found an addictive way to read the news. Whether it’s a negative addiction or positive addition, I don’t know. Would we agree with a nineteenth-century person who complained the telephone has ruined face-to-face communication?