The lost world of magazines

Closed captioning available on Youtube

Script

Once upon a time, dinosaurs walked the Earth: lumbering beasts called magazines. Forged in printing presses, these paper tyrants ruled the world of journalism with a pulpy fist, helping humans understand videogames with famous tropes such as “96%”, “Best Game Ever” and “10/10 for Gameplay”.

But what the magazines did not know was that a cataclysm was coming: the internet. The world changed rapidly: journalism was everywhere, it was fast, and it was free. New species evolved to fill niches in the ecosystem – websites, blogs, angry people talking on YouTube – and the magazines soon became powerless. While some grew hard aluminium shells to survive this harsh new climate, or had their DNA mutated into websites similar only in name, most faced inevitable extinction.

In this world of free, instant, abundant content, who would be foolish enough to release a new paid magazine into the wilderness?

The Lost World

In September 2012, I was with my best friend Craig – who you may know as the Scottish half of Split Screen – at the Eurogamer Expo in London. We sat down for a break from the noise-belching demo pods and malodorous nerds snaking in queues around the Call of Duty booth.

“I’m going to make my own magazine!” I said, revealing my secret project. “We’re going to sell it for actual money!” I took out my iPad and excitedly showed him my crude design mockups.

Craig turned to me and said, “And who do you think is going to buy that?” And I said, “Uhhhh…”

I grew up in the era of classic games magazines. I couldn’t afford to buy all the games, but I sure could read about them. My favourites were Mean Machines, Sega Saturn Magazine, PC Gamer – I’d read them over and over until the pages fell apart. All traditional media have suffered as a result of online incursions, but games media have suffered more than most. It’s a natural consequence of an-already digital medium, one that has a more tech-savvy audience and a whole generation of readers to whom the internet is second nature.

Yet despite the wealth of exceptional content you can find online, I still love magazines. Maybe it’s the tactility, the feel of the print in your hand. The serenity of curling up on the sofa with an iPad and a mug of coffee. Maybe it’s unjustifiable romanticism. Maybe I’m just an old Luddite that needs to get with the times.

But even if that is the case, that’s not much to base a talk on, so instead I’m going to discuss three reasons why I think magazines aren’t just relevant in the online era, but are actually better than the alternatives.

Creativity

Websites are pretty rigid. No matter how many animated gifs you cram into the page, it’s still a relatively static layout. ‘Snow Fall’ feature in 2012, creating such features is labour-intensive. Magazines are malleable, flexible. The design always supports the feature, and never the other way around. If someone wants to draw a comic that can be read from start to finish, but when you print it out it turns into a maze – you can’t do that on Tumblr.

But creativity is about more than making something look good. As writers and editors, we are the arbiters of criticism. We are curators. We are always deciding what to include and what not to include, even though the decision may be unconscious. We promote and retweet, we mute and filter.

The advantage of a regular periodical is that you don’t have to chase for hits or resort to sensationalism. We don’t have to print junk food to support some occasional fine dining. This makes it easier to support marginalised and minority voices, because the magazine is served to you in a set dish. You’re not forced to read the whole thing, but assuming you paid for it and actually enjoy reading, you’ll read all of it. Which brings me on to my next point.

Discovery

Magazines allow us to discover new content. Whenever I read a magazine, it’s not something I saved to Instapaper or was linked through someone whose tweets I actively subscribe to. That means I get to read pieces that I wouldn’t have thought of reading. I find this element of discovery tremendously exciting. And online journalism, with its emphasis on viral sensations and social sharing, has killed this. It sounds counterintuitive: how can something that allows me to access anything be more constricting than a paywalled publication? Allow me to explain.

The Pareto principle, aka the 80:20 rule, states that for many events, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In statistics, this is known as a power law distribution. For example, the top 20% of web sites get about two-thirds of all web hits.

Here’s a nice public domain graph I found on Wikipedia. The green bit represents the top 20%, and the yellow bit is the long tail. If you’re watching this video, chances are that you are part of that long tail.

M. E. J. Newman, “Power laws, Pareto distributions and Zipf’s law.” Contemporary Physics 46, 323 (2005).

It follows that the distribution of online media is lob-sided too, as is the revenue. The big players in online media are well established, and they attract significantly more advertising revenue. This makes it really difficult for smaller sites to establish themselves: we end up fighting with each other for traffic. Think about how many links you see on Facebook pointing to the Guardian, compared to a niche blog like Stumbling and Mumbling. I’ll bet you haven’t even heard of Stumbling and Mumbling. What we think of as choice is really a product of algorithms: Google Search is not an objective tool.

Speaking of revenue, let’s talk about Patreon. In general, I think it’s a great idea – it makes a lot of sense for a website such as Critical Distance, one that wouldn’t be able to survive off advertising. It’s just like giving a donation to a museum that doesn’t charge for entry. But supporting the work of individual journalists, as their own islands of content, with their own branding and fan bases, is a very different thing.

Instead of paying for one or two publications that your favourite writers frequent, you need to subscribe individually. It means individual authors need to work much harder to gain traffic, unless they’re well-established personalities. There is a value in having a united banner. Having a system that is based on visibility and promotion is one where the rich get richer; or in the case of journalism, where the slightly less poor get slightly less poorer faster than the remaining poor.

I’m all for people getting paid for their writing, but a winner-takes-all system seems like a short-term solution for a wider problem with the diminishing value of journalism. To survive it, we need to join together and not grow apart.

Joy

What is the point in making your own magazine? Your tiny victories often feel fleeting, as you shave off another layer of your soul to release something that only a couple of hundred people care about. You’ll not make enough to earn a living wage. It takes over your free time It takes over your life. Creating your own zine seems Sisyphean on the face of it, but we often choose to walk the paths that others have established, without considering the alternatives.

The point is the joy of creation. Magazines remove the endless grind of blogs, where you write piece after piece in the hope that one will take off. Every month or two, you produce this beautiful finished product and release it into the world. And it’s gone! And you can go have a drink! And then do it all again!

You shave off a layer of your soul and it resonates with people. It enriches their lives. It upends our way of thinking. What I want in a Five out of Ten pitch is something that makes me say: “holy shit, I wish I had thought of that.”

Confession time: I don’t find videogames that interesting any more. I don’t care about resolutions and frame rates, scores and the endless hyperbole and non-news. I care about the experiences of people playing and making games. I care about their lives. Those experiences are worth documenting and sharing with the other few people who care. And if you don’t like that sort of thing, you can fuck off and read something else.

Making a magazine is a constant battle, but we fight the good fight simply because we can. When I read publications like Memory Insufficient, Arcade Review, It’s Just A Game, Scroll, Heart Container… to see those creators express themselves on the pages, that deeply personal, compartmentalised art is so moving, so much better than a bit of HTML and CSS. I feel a connection with the author. I think: “someone made this for me”.

Even if dinosaurs could evolve, we would not want them to. Instead, we can strap a jet pack to their back and let them soar.

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