Jeff Jarvis on What the Magazine Was

From a story on CJR’s The Media Today by Jem Bartholomew headlined “Jeff Jarvis on what the magazine was”:

When I was a child, I passed the time with magazines. I would rummage through their pages, tear out strips to stick on my walls, deface them with scrawlings in biro ink. It wasn’t just the sharp writing or cinematic visuals that made magazines appealing. It was their physicality; the way the glossy pages would catch between your fingers.

I did not know it then but the age of the magazine was coming to an end. In the two decades since, circulations have dropped and countless titles have folded or become online zombie magazines, their pages swapped for pixels. In his new book about magazines, Jeff Jarvis points out that the pages get their gloss from kaolin, a white-clay coating that contains very small traces of uranium and thorium. “Thus magazines are ever so slightly radioactive,” he writes, “which is appropriate, as the form is proving to have a half-life.”

Jarvis—who worked for magazines including People and TV Guide as a critic and writer, launched Entertainment Weekly, and is the outgoing director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s journalism school—has two books out this year. Magazine, from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, is a slim, lively volume that mixes institutional history with memoiristic recollection to tell the story of the rise and fall of the magazine era. The Gutenberg Parenthesis (Bloomberg) is wider in sweep, exploring how the internet is closing a chapter of print culture that dates back to the development of the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century. Ahead of the launch of Magazine, which hits shelves tomorrow, I spoke with Jarvis about the form’s role as a convener of national conversation, its association with elitism, and its future in the internet age.

JB: As you outline in your book, the magazine began around the eighteenth century as something for a small community of enthusiasts; only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did it become something for a mass or national audience. You write that we’re going back to the small-community model. Can you tell us a bit more about that idea?

JJ: Before print, society was conversational, and in the early days [of print], it remained conversational. It was the mechanization and industrialization of print that robbed us of conversation and put it in the hands of top-down institutions, like magazines. The magazine was core to conversation in [Jürgen] Habermas’s “public sphere”; in the [London] coffee houses with the Spectator and Tatler. When Harper’s started in 1850, print had begun to explode, there was a new abundance of content, and its first mission was curatorial—to help people find the good stuff. Then came not just the steam-power press, but also the Linotype, a type-setting machine—magazines could scale and become big. At the same time, a new business model was invented in 1893, when Frank Munsey decided to publish a dime magazine, losing money on every copy but making it up on advertising. Thus was invented the mass-media business model, the attention economy that plagues us still online.

With the arrival of the internet and the demolition of this mass market that existed for a brief time in the twentieth century, is that where we’re headed—magazines will again become something for a local community or group of enthusiasts to convene around?

I hope so. I think magazines as a genre missed a beat with the arrival of the internet and so-called “social” media. Magazines were maypoles around which people gathered—around interests or style or taste—and they could have been the conveners of community. They chose instead to still be the manufacturers of “content.” There might still be an opportunity for the spirit of the magazine to be seen more in community than in content, and I know that’s heresy, because magazines define themselves by their own content and their voice. But underneath that lies something more valuable in this age.

You say magazines thought the internet was just another newsstand for them to push their content. How might it have looked if they’d worked out a way to do things better?

When I was working with Condé Nast, I remember a very smart early digital editor at The New Yorker who said the magazine was a tower with windows all around; she wanted to open the windows on all sides so that the smart readers of The New Yorker could speak with each other. My boss, Steven Newhouse, taught me about interactivity and its value. But trying to get magazine editors to see that was quite a different matter. At both magazines and newspapers, we put our content [online] and we thought our job was done. We allowed the public to comment on it but didn’t interact with them, and frankly didn’t care. Magazine companies could have started AOL, Facebook, Twitter. But they thought they were factories for content; they didn’t value the voice of the public and the connections of communities. I could see an alternative future in which a magazine company literally started Facebook.

The book feels, at times, like an obituary for the magazine as a form. But you’re measured about the pros and the cons of magazines—in the sense that they were supporters of culture but were also founded on elitism of taste and class-exclusive gatekeeping. How did you tread that balance of capturing both sides?

I love magazines—I bought them by the pound, I housed them like a pirate’s booty. But I don’t buy them anymore. Magazines used to fancy themselves as arbiters of culture, but now the culture creates itself. Vogue is no longer telling you where the cutting edge of fashion is; you can see it on Instagram, TikTok. I started Entertainment Weekly, may it rest in peace [the magazine stopped printing last year; the website survives]. I wouldn’t start that today, because everyone can be a critic and share their views online. That top-down view—of serving the public with culture, politics, policy, arts—is still enviable, and I hope that we create new mechanisms to do that, that are more open and equitable.

I want to read a quote from the book: “As an institution the magazine has fulfilled many roles: curator of the notable, nurturer of talent and art, cultural voice, polished mirror, distant observer, collected record of a time, national convener, community organizer, advocate and reformer, educator, aesthetic and literary model, entertainer, critic, birthplace of the mass market, arbiter of celebrity, fabricator of pathos and kitsch, prophet of trends, home for ideas, bulwark of institutions.” What’s worth salvaging for the future of the magazine?

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I tell the story of the first reputed calls for censorship of print in 1470, when Niccolò Perotti, offended by a bad translation of [the Roman philosopher] Pliny, beseeched the Pope to appoint a censor to approve everything coming off the press. I realized that he wasn’t seeking censorship. In fact, he was anticipating the creation of the institutions of editing and publishing that would do a pretty good job of assuring quality, authority, and artistry in the medium for half a millennium. But those institutions are inadequate to the scale of speech today. What I keep wishing for, and what magazines tried to do in their multiple eras, was try to discover, nurture, and recommend authority, quality, and talent. In a time of abundant speech, I think we can create new institutions to do that. That’s the spirit and soul of magazines. But I don’t think it starts with a few editors assigning a few writers to write lots of content. I think it’s going to look very different.

Your argument in The Gutenberg Parenthesis is that the age of print displaced the oral tradition, but that the latter is making a comeback with the arrival of the internet. You write that “the future is medieval.”

I started blogging after surviving the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and the first time I saw someone else write about what I’d written, and link to me—and I responded, and linked back to them—it was a life-changing moment. I saw the properly-conceived media conversation [on the internet]. A lot of what I work on is asking how we can recapture and improve that conversation.

For a future book (with the working title The Internet We Deserve), I ask what people did to establish authority and credibility before the institutions of print, editing, publishing, libraries, and so on. I came across a concept called fama, which means in Latin, “it is said.” It’s really about the reputation that attaches to someone telling a story, their subject, and to those they pass it onto. Books on the topic say that the process of determining authority and credibility was not based on institutions; it was social. I think we have to return to that now. The institutions that we created are inadequate to the scale of speech [online].

You were told at the start of your magazine career that newspaper people can’t be made into magazine people. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

I think there was some truth to it. Magazines simply had a different voice. What’s interesting to me is that it was never clear at the beginning what forms the newspaper and magazines would take, and they had distinct eras. [The media theorist] Neil Postman would argue that newspapers became newspapers with the telegraph—their voice, the idea of human interest, the sameness of their language—and Marshall McLuhan [also a media theorist] says that the Linotype gave newspapers a mechanistic language. Whereas magazines tried to recapture a more nuanced human language.

Both your new books were written shortly before the huge surge in generative AI, which has changed the conversation again. How have you been thinking about that?

AI has obviously been around for quite some time. With Google, we use it to finish our sentences, translate into other languages, and get us out of traffic jams. When AI became a consumer product, that’s when the attention changed. Firstly, I’ve been arguing to journalists that we should stay away from using generative AI to make more content—because generative AI has absolutely no concept of meaning, fact, or truth. We know this. So it’s irresponsible to use it to write news.

Secondly, I believe generative AI is going to finally finish off the commodification of content. One of the great lessons from writing both books is that we as journalists, you and I as writers, have so much of our value residing in this commodity we created called “content”. It’s a Gutenberg-era notion, that content fills the space between covers. With copyright, content became a property and a tradable asset to be sold. But if we shift our attention from content to conversation, it changes our view of journalists’ role in the world. Journalism becomes a service.

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