Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives
On the shredding of magazines.

I mentioned this briefly in my last post, and I was going to leave it at that, but then I carved up a particularly massive issue of GQ and realized that I still had something left to say.

My relationship with magazines is a weird one. I subscribe to at least half a dozen different magazines and pick up another two or three on the newsstands each month, and that doesn't include my comics habit. I've always loved magazines – I remember discovering weird, beautiful literary journals like Globe when I was in junior high or high school, as well as the weighty, super-glossy advertising magazines like Communication Arts, Print, HOW and Step (both in its Step-by-Step Design and Step Into Design incarnations). I was intoxicated by the beauty of these things as objects, the cumulation of writing, storytelling, photography, illustration, layout, and so on. That's why I still can't help myself when I get the opportunity to help design a new print document, even when so much of my work now is done online. When I was in elementary school I made my own Kids' Ghostbusters magazine and served as the editor for the Titan Times Jr. newspaper, I co-edited the Titan Times in high school, I founded Inkblots in 1995 and published it off and on for over a decade, my "senior prank" was designing the literary magazine for the high school next door when its editor recruited poor Nick to do it (even though layout was never his thing for Inkblots), and in college I did layout and design for Hika and Catechresis, a little for the Kenyon newspaper and some for Exposé, the newspaper at the University of Exeter while I was over in England, among other publications. I've done newsletter designs for RBB Systems, book design for Ben Brown's So New Media, and here at MIT I redesigned In Medias Res for the CMS department as soon as I could. Still, in almost every design I've done, there's been something largely (blissfully) absent: ads.

This evening I took an x-acto knife to an issue of GQ that weighed in at over 400 pages and neatly sliced out the content that I found worth keeping. The total amount of keeper material? 20 pages, and about a quarter to a third of those actually were ads, pictures of noteworthy outfits or color combinations that I wanted to remember for future projects. There's one article on Zach Braff, one half-page piece on coffee, a couple pages of gadgets and doodads, a page on hosting, a page on how to make a really great sandwich, and the rest wound up in my wastebasket.

I find something deeply satisfying about destroying a magazine, which seems ridiculously at odds with that earlier paragraph until I clarify: there is something deeply satisfying about destroying a magazine from Condé Nast. I simply don't view most of these Condé Nast bricks as artifacts of the same stuff as the literary journals and design magazines. I would never slice up an issue of Communication Arts, for example, and I'd be hard-pressed to take scissors to an issue of Dwell, but I barely bat an eyelash at cutting open an issue of Architectural Digest, and chopping up an issue of GQ or Vanity Fair is a real visceral treat. This is so because these issues are so completely and utterly bloated with ads. To me, these ridiculous Tijuana bibles of commerce are artistically criminal; yes, they have some great articles, but flipping through twenty, thirty, even forty pages of ads in an issue of Vanity Fair before you even reach the table of contents is absurd.

I still find things in these issues worth keeping – the 20:400, or 1:20 ratio is actually about right – but still, grabbing the two halves of a magazine and tearing it right down its spine is really quite satisfying. Ripping out page after page of silly, pointless pictures of models with eyes like Jersey cows (behind which can be found usually about a tenth as much intelligence) feels like a strike for good in the world. Am I saying that literary and art journals don't suffer from a similar signal to noise ratio? Hell, no. Most literary journals are loaded to bursting with page after page of writing that, if not out-and-out crap, isn't my cup of tea. The same can be said about any type of publication; most stories in the sci-fi magazines usually aren't that great, the majority of the content in The Wall Street Journal falls outside of my area of interest, and so on – yet even there it's a noted difference between the ratio of signal to noise and the ratio of signal to relevant signal. Publications like Vanity Fair and GQ are often so swollen with ads that they're mostly noise, and then the high-fashion stuff isn't anything that most people would wear, so that's irrelevant signal, leaving only one in twenty pages (if you're lucky) to prove relevant to a reader like me.

Rip rip rip rip rip.

Lately Uncle Warren has been ruminating about magazines and Burst Culture, and there are some ways in which Ellis is right and other ways in which he's full of crap. For instance, he writes that "I love magazines that commit and pay for long articles and long fiction. The web rewards neither approach. It’s a packeted medium, a surf medium. Short bursts are the way to go." I disagree with this analysis. If the content is right and the execution is right, people will consume content off anything for hours on end. Arguing that content delivered over the web has to be short is horribly short-sighted because it woefully ignores the hours upon hours upon hours of time spent by people watching long-form shows and films sucked down over BitTorrent or YouTube, or reading weblogs, or running around as an Orc or an Elf in World of WarCraft. One could argue that reading webcomics or blog posts or watching the short clips on YouTube isn't the same, but even books are chopped up into smaller bits, be they sections or chapters or even pages. A compelling story keeps audiences clicking the same way that it keeps them turning pages. Length is irrelevant, as long as the story quality remains consistently high throughout. Will people's eyes get tired after staring at a screen for a long amount of time? Sure. Will their hands get tired from holding up the latest Harry Potter brick for hours on end? Absolutely. Each medium has its weaknesses and strengths, but I think arguments that say that web-delivered media has to be short is simply, well, short-sighted.

I think that online magazines are due for some sort of revolution. I was heartily encouraged by Derek Powazek's JPG Magazine and 8020 Publishing until Derek was unethically forced out by one of his cofounders, at which point my loyalty to Derek (and my own personal code of ethics) won out over my interest in the company. Still, I think 8020 is a step in the right direction, and I think that other publications would be wise to follow suit. Still, I think there's more than enough room online for real good, solid publications with high-quality writing and a strong design aesthetic, powered by Google Ads and produced with a much lower overhead (and a much lower impact on the environment).

Perhaps someday I'll bring Inkblots back and try out my theories. For now though, I'll have to be satisfied with cutting up the pile of magazines that arrives on my doorstep every month. Money is money and the ads aren't going away anytime soon, but at least I can control (to some extent) the signal to noise ratio in my own library. This is some small comfort – which, along with the joy of tearing an issue in half, should keep me satisfied. At least for now.

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