How long has it been since you visited a newsagent and bought a magazine? For me, it must have been well over ten years. Since 2005, probably the only print periodicals I’d bought had been subscriptions ordered over the internet, and even then, I quickly let my subscriptions to Analog and Australian Road Rider lapse.
I’m a big fan of print: While I have devices on which I could read electronic books, I still buy a paperback to read on the train. Perhaps I enjoy bucking trends – I don’t think you can break new ground by following the crowd – and I remain skeptical of predictions of print’s demise and surrender to our new e-reader overlords. Sure, there are plenty of people reading electronically on the train too, but readership is declining – there are many more playing Candy Crush Saga or trading rants on Facebook.
So why stop subscribing? In the case of Analog, the issues had arrived 3 to 6 months after their issue date, and with both periodicals, I felt the content didn’t represent good value compared to what I could find online, for free. And in the subjects that interested me, whether it be writing, motorcycling or whatever, I knew where to find decent information online. There just wasn’t any way they could compete.
Recently though, I wanted to try something new. I’d been playing with some digital art using Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, and I felt that seeing how others use the application would be beneficial. I knew of some great examples online, but nevertheless, the field is new to me. What am I missing? Who can I turn to to provide an authoritative guide for a newbie exploring the field?
Autodesk’s tutorials made mention of a magazine – ImagineFX – which seemed intriguing. Interviews, a heap of art, tutorials, and comparisons between styles, techniques and workflows. My interest piqued, I popped in at my local newsagent to see if I could find the magazine.
Yes, it had been a while. One newsagent had closed. Another had a tiny aisle populated with only motoring and lifestyle magazines, and a lone copy of National Geographic. My local bookstore now includes a newsstand (a disturbing development brought on by declining book sales, a decision to hold less book stock, and to survive through diversification), and while they had a few more magazines to choose from, apart from photography there was nothing catering to the visual arts.
Eventually I found a large newsagent in the city that had the magazine I was after, but the experience had left me with a nagging question: If this is the new model, does it even work?
There are (perhaps) less publications in print, and less subscribers, so sure, retailers can’t afford to stock everything. I could have also spent that time searching for a print magazine instead finding free content online. Or I could have bought the issue digitally online, for (far) less than the retail print copy, and began reading immediately.
Call me old fashioned, or an art snob, but there are two things that don’t sit well with me in this brave new world.
First, there no longer remains an obvious place to find the curator. In times gone by the traditional publishing and editorial process standing behind your bookstore book purchase, or your magazine or computer software, provided some minimum guarantee that what you were purchasing was at least literate, and likely merchantable and fit for purpose. After all, the retailer carried a risk that you’d come back and ask for your money back if it wasn’t. In an emerging era of self published books, self promoting art channels, or ‘early access‘ unfinished computer software, those values have been thrown out, replaced with what at times appear to be the digital equivalent of temporary street sellers hawking their wares and accepting only cash.
Second, I worry the potentially low culture tastes of a mass society mean Google will never be a fitting replacement for the filter that traditional publishing models provide. If the majority are content with a self published first draft they can buy for $0.99 or less, or a website that’s accessible for free, then that’s what you’ll find at the top of your search results. And sure – that’s what Google’s great for. But does it also mean that if you research a field you don’t know, you’ll wade through a lot garbage before you find what you’re looking for?
Who knows what lies ahead. Content delivery via the internet continues to evolve, and so does the audience. I also realise it makes little sense to pine for the past, and nobody can deny there are huge opportunities for people willing to self promote and self publish their work. But what future is this lying ahead of us, recommended by a search engine or hit statistic?