Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Magazine Of The Future?

I dumped out the contents of my goody bag from SXSW Interactive, and Hell fell out. I don't mean the deluge of swag -- one expects that -- but a large, glossy magazine. A travel magazine. A vision of Hell.

Everywhere, it's called. "The New Travel Magazine Made by You." I knew it was trouble the minute I saw that cover line.

Inside, my worst nightmares were fulfilled in spades. Oh, it's pretty. It's glossy. It even has a few ads. But my heart sank, and it's remained sunk. This thing is evil. The explanation is right there only page 8. Read along with me and see if you don't get creeped out, too:

How Everywhere works.

1) See the world
Visit wonderful places, have fun, take lots of pictures.

2) Document your trip
Select your best photos and tell us about where you went.

3) Upload
Contribute your travel tales and photos to Everywheremag.com.

4) Peer review
The community votes on travel stories, photos, and favorite places.

5) Final selection
Our editors curate each issue from the best of the best.

6) Publication
Published contributors get $100 and a free subscription.

In other words, it's a blog. On paper. A very pretty blog on paper. And if it catches on, someone's going to be making crazy money.

Now, let me take a minute to explain why this is a very bad idea. This strikes to the heart of the whole neophilia thing I've been raving about, and I can just imagine Grant Alden's reaction when he reads this. I already know the reaction I got from a professional travel writer who's doing work she hates because she can't make a living being a travel writer. She's ready to pass out torches and meet me in the streets of San Francisco while we storm the Everywhere headquarters.

She and I, it turns out, had an identical vision at about the same time, before we were in e-contact: a travel magazine aimed at how the people we know travel. Not the "Paris on $5000 a Day" crowd that Conde Nast Traveler seems to target, but real people going to interesting places who want to learn about other interesting places to go. Superficially, Everywhere would seem to be that magazine, but it's not.

As I learned a long time ago, pure democracy is a very bad thing in the magazine business. There not only has to be a hierarchy, but there also has to be something of a dictatorship if the thing is going to work. This seems evil, but really it's not: nobody is an expert on everything. If you need your house rewired, you could, theoretically, do it yourself, but if you're not an electrician, my guess is you'll defer to an electrician's expertise and pay for it. And if you're an accountant, you might do your electrician's taxes. There's nothing wrong with this, is there?

There's something about writing, though, that makes anyone capable of creating a sentence think they can do it. They can't, any more than anyone can take a picture by pushing a button. You can write a sentence and snap a picture, but is either any good? So accountants account, electricians electrish, writers write, and photographers photograph. The writers and photographers put out a magazine, the electrician and the accountant buy it, and they rewire our houses and do our taxes.

Putting together an article is a very complex thing. While turning the pages of Everywhere, I came up with an example of how this works so I can show you what I perceive as the biggest problem with the admittedly seductive idea it puts forth, that a magazine "created by the world's smartest experts -- our readers" is doomed to mediocrity.

A few years ago, I did a story on Cracow. Let us say that a magazine or newspaper wanted me to go back there and do another one. Okay, first we have to come to an agreement: I'll lay out the dough for the travel, the hotel, the meals, and get receipts and send them to the magazine, who'll pay me back. In return, I'll give them a travel story about Cracow based on what I already know and what I'm going to learn about how it's changed since I've been there. Now, it's not ethical to take freebies from folks you're writing about, but the first thing I'd do would be to contact the Cracow Tourist Office and tell them what I was planning to do and when I was planning to do it. This opens some doors: I might be able to get a room -- which I'd pay for -- in a hotel I might ordinarily not have been able to get into. Cracow is dominated by a huge castle. Only a small number of tickets to it are available every day. I wouldn't hesitate to use my article to push my way to the top of the line on the day I needed to visit it if the travel folks could help, because it's the main tourist attraction and I'd have to report it. I'd want to see the brochures they put out, so I could see how they perceived the city, which would give me a foil for how I would see it. I wouldn't hesitate to ask them to make something available to me, to set up an interview (and provide a translator) for various important people, to give me an unfair advantage over the ordinary tourist -- that guy over there, sort of wandering around, who's going to upload his trip to Everywhere, for instance.

If you go to Cracow, you're going to see some unpleasant stuff. For one thing, right nearby -- your hotel can arrange a bus-tour -- is Auschwitz. There's no way I'd write a comprehensive travel story for an American travel magazine about Cracow without mentioning Auschwitz -- if only because for a lot of Americans who lost family there, it's a place of remembrance and prayer. I wonder if Everywhere would do a spread on Auschwitz. Or the controversy (now, I believe, settled) with the religious people adjoining it, hyper-conservative Catholics who were trying to hijack the site for their own purposes a few years ago. I couldn't not mention that, myself, because it has a larger resonance in contemporary Poland, which remains a place of pretty upfront anti-Semitism. On a somewhat lesser note, there are poor peasant women who come in from the countryside and sell cheeses out of baskets. They're everywhere, and you can tell at a glance that they're impoverished. I didn't even know what they were selling until I asked a Cracow resident, and he was embarrassed I'd seen them. But I'd want to report that, too.

Writing the article, I'd want to get in history, the major sites, places to eat, practical information, things to do and things to avoid, and then season this with some attitude. When I was there a few years ago, there were loads of tourist stalls in the Cloth Hall in the central square selling wooden statues of sad-eyed Jews, which appalled me because at that time there were only 300 real Jews living in the whole city. There were more wooden Jews than that in two stalls in the Cloth Hall! With Auschwitz nearby, a Jewish section of Cracow that was enthusiastically emptied under the Nazis, and the residual anti-Semitism, there's a rather sharp edge that any observant person's going to see, and needs to understand. It's part of the experience.

It's also nuanced. Everywhere's articles are tiny bites. The "big" ones take up maybe a page of type spread out over two pages, with pix. You don't get the impression that anyone who wrote them did a lot of research, because most people don't research their vacations, even when they do want to know a little more about what they're seeing. That's what I'd want this article to do, and you just can't do it in that amount of room.

The whole Facebookian "community" thing, too, is scary. Wooden Jews, Auschwitz, threadbare grandmothers selling cheese in the park...a bummer! So what you'd get from these folks would be a smiley-face story about the castle, the churches, and the pretty square. Maybe the good restaurants in the reconstructed Jewish quarter. The pictures would definitely pass: Cracow is stunningly beautiful. But the content would be, um, very superficial.

And so it turns out to be: without professionals -- except for a few who put together the section on Stuff and the Gridskipper ripoff section, and they work in the home office -- you get what you pay for. And you pay $100 and get a story that's worth just that. Not, likely enough, to pay for even a night at the hotel the writer stayed at, let alone the cost of getting where they were going. But who needs professionals? We're all professionals now! We have blogs instead of magazines, You Tube instead of television. The diminution of quality isn't even commented on.

So my travel-writing friend and I are out of jobs. As far as I can tell, my career is essentially over, by some sort of mandate I wasn't allowed to vote in. This (and its sister publication, a photo magazine called JPG) is the wave of the future: poorly informed people talking to each other. Ignorance will snowball, and nobody will care.

No, it's not going to happen that way. I'm going to resist, and I hope others do, too. The travel magazine I want to do may not happen (or maybe it will: I'll happily correspond with any professional interested in developing it, since I've sure thought about it enough), but I think the coming economic collapse in the United States may wake some people -- the right people -- up to the fact that you can't have amateurs in charge of things, whether they're foreign policy or magazines, and that the only way to turn things around is to let experts do what they do, even if it's only entertain and inform you. That's all I want to do, and I think I've proven over the years that I can do it. It's worth paying for (my Cracow story made me $1000 plus expenses, and it wasn't even as long as this post; someone like Conde Nast Traveller would pay substantially more), just as any expert's expertise is worth paying for.

A word to the wise, Everywhere: doing something doesn't make you an expert. And a hundred bucks is chump change.


Sean said...

Though I also hate it when people use phrases like "citizen journalist" and carry on as if any amateur is just as capable as a trained and experienced writer, I don't think it's so clear-cut as a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies trying to horn in on a world of high-quality professionals.

A new player in the market for low-quality material does not necessarily signify a lost customer in the market for quality material. I think it's always been the case that 90% of the population prefers shit. The Atlantic and Harpers and The Economist have existed alongside People and US Weekly and The Enquirer for decades, and customers know that People Magazine's article about Person X will be limited to what kind of clothes he wears, and The Atlantic's article on Person X will likely be a more in-depth. Similarly, I think it will be obvious to anyone who flips through the magazine rack that the magazine that pays its writers $1000 has a different caliber of material than the one that pays its writers $100.

Then again, I'm not in the business, so maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the sky is falling. Maybe readers of The Atlantic don't actually like 10,000-word essays, and were only putting up with the magazine's wordiness in lieu of something shorter, and will now be lured away by The Current. Maybe customers who see two travel magazines will only look for the word "Krakow" on the cover and then compare the price of the two without flipping through. But I doubt it. I would imagine that people who like higher-quality material will continue to buy higher-quality material over the (albeit ever-expanding variety of) lower-quality stuff, just like they always have.

Anonymous said...

i'd have to agree with SeanM - there are diverse audiences which have different requirements for depth and perspective - sometimes even collapsed into the same person event. returning from dresden this evening i took advantage to the two hour rail journey to peruse some news and culture digests on my shiny tiny, then enjoyed longer essays by 'recognized experts' on nasty inky old paper. tain't an either/or world! but if one's business model depends on scarcity rather than value the rapid expansion of content could be a problem.

Ed Ward said...

I think you guys are both missing the point here, which might be understandable given that I wrote and posted this as quickly as I did -- another characteristic of blogs.

The point isn't different audiences, it's what the conventional thinking among those who decide where the ad and investment dollars go determines. We've already seen a magazine die because the ad dollars shriveled up, and now we see a magazine mimicking MySpace, Gridskipper, and the like. It was probably sold with buzzwords from the digital world like "community" and "a bold new step in interactive publishing."

And maybe I'm an old grump, but every time I see something superficial and new like this and the bile rises in my throat, it...catches on. For a while. And I don't think this is to be encouraged, because someone will just try to refine it instead of rejecting it like the piece of neophilic crap it is.

Anonymous said...

i'm going back to publishing only in cuneiform -

Bowleserised said...

Just to be a Fusterella, it doesn't strike me that amateur writers nowadays have the same skills as they did in letterwriting days of yore.
Mind you, that could be the old selective hindsight thing in practice. But also I know that when I can get a video, I don't exactly stretch my brain to do a beautiful description of an event on the blog.

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting article right now in the LRB on this whole journalism debacle: "Riots, Terrorism etc"; it is a review of the book "Flat Earth News".

Anonymous said...

Ed - I hope this is not your worst nightmare, because there are great advantages to a magazine made from the expertise of thousands rather than a limited number of "experts". For starters, I'm certain there are people out there with more personal knowledge about Cracow than can be gained from a week-long trip and a visit to the tourist office. You may envision a mob of "amateurs" storming the gates of editorial decency, but the reality is that there are people all over the world with great insider stories and travel experiences to share. This is not the end of deeply researched journalism, but rather an opportunity to better share personal stories and expertise in a community with the finished output of a magazine.

With JPG, we have already shown that a large community of passionate photographers and writers can produce a better photo magazine than what is currently on the market - and this includes great writing and photo essays from members with unique access to places like Afghanistan (http://www.jpgmag.com/stories/1504) and motorcycle gangs in California (http://www.jpgmag.com/stories/441). It doesn't sound like you're particularly attached to the Conde Nast Traveler's of the world either, so I hope you reconsider your vision of hell, because this is an opportunity to produce better magazines.

Anonymous said...

JPG? Rings a bell. Ah yes, had to ask them to remove some text which some passionate photographer had borrowed from one of my blogs to decorate one of his photos with.

Only took a month or so for a response, which was not bad for Web 2.0 ;).

(Not that I place any great worth on the random collection of words I choose to scatter around my blogs, but hey, it's my drivel, the Community should write its own).

Bowleserised said...

Devin, how will you know that the material thrown up by your community isn't plagiarised (as happened already to Mount Penguin) or inaccurate?
We recently had an episode where Moleskine's oh-so-cool post-your-own-travel-material blog turned out to be stocked with material stolen from elsewhere.
I know that being a professional journo is no guarantee of spotless behaviour, but do you have a team of fact checkers who will examine this material as thoroughly as, say, The New Yorker or a Rough Guide? Or do you just take everyone's word for it?

Anonymous said...

We have fact checkers and copy editors that look at everything that goes into the magazine (and we have a formal takedown policy online as well). As you point out, even the "professionals" aren't perfect, but copyright and accuracy are just as important for us.

Unfortunately, not everyone understands that you can't copy and paste everything on the Internet with reckless abandon. We try to educate our community on that and when they do break the rules, we take steps to correct it - although I'm sorry to hear it so long in thepenguin's case - 3 weeks is too long, but we did take the whole story down.

Anonymous said...

are you really so incredibly naive??? Do you really think a whole phalanx of history, psychology and demographology Ph.D.s could ever -- ever? -- come up with the penetrating insights that one mediocre-quality photo cum flippant heading on my blog could??? Give. Me. A. F. Ing. Ba. Rake. Don't you realize that the brains of 10,000 combined idiots are better than that of one (1) genius? Especially - e-spe-cial-ly - if the captain of said idiot phalanx is raking in the ad dough? Why don't you take your poverty-stricken ideology of quality and expertise to the bank, sucka? I'm stickin' with the dilettantes! They have suckage!

Bowleserised said...

Do they phone every venue in Riga to doublecheck prices?

Marie Javins said...

What a brilliant, democratic, and money-saving business model! But why stop there? Why not have the editors work for credit and a few bucks? Why not have the graphic designers work for their own personal glory? Why not have the mailroom guys deliver the internal mail cuz they love to? (No, wait, scratch the mailroom idea. They can get paid because their names don't appear in glorious print.)

A masthead doesn't pay the mortgage, but who cares? In the New World Order, bankers will accept clips in lieu of dollars.

Ed Ward said...

And the ad salesmen will work for the glory, too, right?

Oh, wait...

Marie Javins said...

Oh, that's different...

Bowleserised said...

Maybe if they were only '''amateur''' ad salesmen?

Would this magazine want amateur ad salesmen, Devin? Or did you hire someone who knows how to do that?