Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

May 19th, 2008:

Magazine Meanderings

We brought home two weeks' worth of mail this afternoon, and in the pile were the latest issues of all the print magazines I currently subscribe to: QST, Nuts & Volts, The Atlantic, and Wired. Every month I read them—or major portionsof them—and every month I fret for the future of the magazine business, in which I played with great success for fifteen years (1985-2000.)

QST isn't doing too badly. It looks pretty much the way it looked twenty years ago, and it fulfills its editorial mission better than any magazine I've seen in recent times. The amateur radio demographic isn't doing well, as our average age is now up in the high 50s somewhere, but the editorial people know their readers, the ad people know their advertisers, and somehow they make it work. I just wish they'd publish a review—or simply an announcement!—of my Carl & Jerry reprints.

And I continue to be amazed at how well Nuts and Volts has grasped what Tim O'Reilly has brilliantly nailed as the Maker Psychology: People who build stuff because they love to build stuff, whether it actually turns out to be useful or not. It's the last real big-time magazine about electronics, and I bought a lifetime subscription in 1980 for $5! I just wish they'd publish a review—or simply an announcement!—of my Carl & Jerry reprints. (Is there an echo in here?)

I'm not as sanguine about The Atlantic, and haven't been for five or six years now. Still, every time my sub runs out, I re-up, having been wowed by an article or two right in the nick of time. They used to publish thought-provoking articles about things I hadn't heard about before, or didn't understand, or both. A couple of issues ago, they published a cover story about…Britney Spears! The readership apparently sent away (from one of those wonderfully eccentric little 1/12 page ads in the back of the mag, doubtless) for authentic Transylvanian torches and pitchforks and began marching on the mag's offices on New Hampshire Avenue in DC. Me, I'll be contrarian here and say that Britney didn't bother me too much. Maybe she was an experiment. Maybe the editorial staff wanted to prove to their bean counters that slutty, washed-up pop singers are not the keys to the kingdom; if so, they succeeded in spades. No, my big gripe with The Atlantic is that they became obsessed with political personalities a few years back, and now it's Obama or one damned Clinton or another on the cover almost all the time. I wouldn't mind articles about political ideas so much, but no—it's all about how desperate Hilary is getting, and how Obama will learn how to walk on water by his inauguration next January. (Hint: Pray for a winter cold enough to freeze the Potomac.) I was ready to let it lapse back in January, and then they published Lori Gottlieb's brilliantly ascerbic little spitting-into-the-evolutionary-wind commentary called “Marry Him!” I re-upped. And this month, mirabile dictu! Their cover story is a reasonable layman's overview of threats to the Earth from asteroids and comets. There's the inescapable praise-for-Obama piece and a peculiar backhanded tribute to G. W. Bush, both of which I could have done without, but there was also an anguished piece by an adjunct professor teaching English to night school students telling us that not everyone has what it takes to get a college degree. We'll see who wins come next January when I have to write another check, but my editor's intuition detects a back-office struggle between editors who think we like to read about ideas and editors who think we like to read about, um, our national mental illness. Hey, guys, John-John Kennedy himself couldn't make it work. Whatthehell makes you think you can?

And then there's Wired. Like the trademark alternating color bars on their spine, I subscribe and lapse, subscribe, and lapse. The colors and the page layouts still give me headaches, but to ensure that I'm still young old (rather than old old) I have to keep in touch. And they have their moments: The current issue's cover text is absolutely, unreservedly brilliant: “Attention Environmentalists: Keep your SUV. Forget organics. Go nuclear. Screw the spotted owl.” I wanted to cheer. And then I went right for the cover story, to receive the worst impression that they had gotten the idea for the cover but then chickened out when trying to create the article. A few hundred disjointed words without much in the line of facts qualifies as a rant but hardly an idea piece, and the tiny nuggets of information they tossed in simply made me nuts to find the rest of the story somewhere. In the meantime, what the current issue tells me is that in some quarters, at least, our national mental illness is not politics but ADD. There's almost nothing in the whole issue that's more than a few hundred words long. Wired has for some time been approaching what I might call “magazine theater”: Giving the reader the impression that they're reading a magazine. It's currently paid for, but I think the bar on my spine is about to change colors again.

Still, consider the fate of Sky and Telescope, which I dropped in February after subscribing for over twenty years, because I just wasn't reading it. I took Harper's for a year back in the late 80s. Now I riffle through it in airport newsstands to make sure I'm not missing something. (I'm not.) And don't get me started on Scientific American

I love magazines. I guess I'm just fussy. But you knew that.