Last weekend, on the way home from giving a presentation/workshop to a hospital foundation in California, I found myself in LAX with a little time to kill and nothing to read on the six hour flight home. I wandered into a newsstand and looked at the magazines on the shelf (it was a Sunday, meaning all the newspapers were way too heavy to lug around).
A cover blurb on the October 2013 issue of Harper’s magazine highlighted an article on “The Survival of Magazines,” but I tend to stay away from those kinds of articles, because they’re all doom and gloom. A glance at the table of contents, however, listed a piece called “Content and its Discontents” by Patrick de St. Exupery.
In my view, anything by a St. Exupery is at least worth a glance–Patrick is the first cousin, twice removed, of the famous Antoine de St. Exupery who wrote, among other classics, The Little Prince. So I bought the magazine.
It turns out that the two articles, taken together, made the $6.99 purchase price of the magazine well, well worth it. In fact, that was the point of John McArthur, Harper’s publisher, who wrote the piece on the survival of magazines. He talked about the old advertising-based economic model of magazines, the onset of the internet, and the unfortunate transformation of literary talent and complex thoughts into, as he said, “something called content.”
I learned some surprising things about advertisers, as well as about the presence of some voices of … not so much dissent, but writers, journalists and publishers who are following another path in publishing, one not so based on Twitter-length thoughts, the immediate reaction-content of many journalistic blogs and comments, or the philosophy that more is better, even if that more is not particularly well researched, fact-checked, thought out, or deep.
It is easy, these days, to find discouraging pieces about the dire straits of publishing and projections of the end of the well written, or well-thought-out, word. What distinguished McArthur’s piece was that it was upbeat. Hopeful. It catalogued publishers and writers (including St. Exupery) who were actively pursuing alternate paths–relying on higher-priced subscriptions or newsstand prices, and asking a fee to read the publication on line, in order to protect the kind of journalism and writing that takes time, effort, funds, travel, and first-hand observation in order to create. Harper’s, McArthur noted, was following that same approach, and rethinking the advertising-based model they’d relied on for decades. In rethinking their approach, McArthur said, he asked himself,
“Why did a magazine of ideas, criticism, and reporting need to serve as a sales medium between advertisers and readers, why should advertising be our principal means of support? …Wasn’t the truly important compact–really, the only relationship that mattered–between reader and writer or, to some extent, between reader, writer and editor? Harper’s is published first and foremost to be read. If the magazine functions as an intermediary, it is between the creative imagination of the fiction writer or essayist and the creative spirit of the sensitive reader, between the inquiring mind of the journalist and the engaged mind of the alert, occasionally outraged citizen.”
No discussion about the “inevitable” devaluation or decline of writing or good journalism. Just a clear voice of reason against the tide of “it’s the way it is now, we can’t change it.” Every person who has ever taken the uncharted course has changed their world against expectation; so has anyone who has said “no” to trend or the popular tide and striven for something better. Do they survive or succeed? Not always, but sometimes. And when they do, we call them visionaries, for seeing that alternate way forward.
Patrick de St. Exupery, in that same issue, offers a beautifully written essay that goes even further, making a specific argument for a rejuvenated, reformed press based on four pillars: Time, The Field, The Image, and Coherence.
I don’t often read Harper’s. But if it’s still on the newsstand, it’s worth picking up this issue, or finding these articles online (even though yes, you’ll have to pay to view them). Aside from a glimmer of hope about the publishing and journalism fields, its “content” is a reminder to me that the world does not only get changed by the latest trends, but by those who have the ability to see beyond them.
And the fact that there are people like that working actively to preserve quality publishing gives me hope.