I’m a die-hard paper fan. I have a few shelves of books in almost every room of the house and I love taking a stack of magazines or newspapers on a plane – this is so ingrained in my psyche that I actually save magazines a few weeks before a long trip so I have something to read. But slowly, ever so slowly, this love of paper is leaving me. First, I abandoned print journalism for the bare-knuckle punch-fest that is blogging, and then I stopped reading print books and instead took up the Kindle, then the iPad. I literally have not cracked a paperback or hardback for a full, long read in more than a year. I’m not writing this to prove my early adopter cred but because the thought amazes me.
I still read the NY Times in dead-tree form and, although for a little while I thought The Daily would be the future of daily news, I think I’ll stick with the paper version for a few more months, at least until I wrap my head around the psychological process of reading general daily news online.
But the one thing I thought I’d never do was abandon my magazine habit. But slowly and surely magazines fell off my radar. First it was Wired because all the news in there I had read months before on the Internets. Then it was the Economist because I’d end up with a stack of magazines full of great stuff that I’d never read. I let my subscription to Fortune lapse and haven’t missed it. But if there’s one magazine I can’t get enough of in print form it’s the New Yorker.
I love the magazine. It has great, long pieces and funny marginalia. It has comics that I actually go through and consume before I read the actual articles. It has John Seabrook, whose Deeper turned me on to tech writing, and Anthony Lane. It’s like an effete liberal adult’s Mad Magazine without the harping of Harpers and the boredom of the Atlantic Monthly. The cover was always great, it was slim, and thus a copy of the New Yorker has accompanied me on almost every trip I’ve taken in the past decade.
But I’m about to cancel my print subscription. Why? Because the iPad version is far superior.
The iPad version includes everything that currently exists in the print title – including the full-page ads for Rolex and probably that damn Pokeboat – except in a much cleaner form. Each issue costs $4.99 and e-only subscriptions cost $59 a year. iPad and print subscriptions cost $69. That’s right: Conde Nast puts so little value on the paper that the magazine is printed on that it will give it to you for use as kindling for a mere $10 more. Other titles like GQ and Wired will cost $1.99 an issue or $19.99 a year. I doubt they will sell as well as the New Yorker.
Why? Well, the New Yorker is text heavy. It’s not quite gray in the way some magazines are – the iPad app uses the New Yorker’s classic ACaslon Regular font to reduce the general density of the text – and the stories are long and engaging. There are no graphical tricks, not too many multimedia events, and when there are, they’re great (one poetry reading by Sherman Alexie in the latest issue was amazing). And even the ads are unobtrusive and, dare I say it, beautiful in full living color. Everything about the iPad version is the same, yet strikingly different. This isn’t some rush-job given to a bunch of magazine designers who slap a little video in the corner of a horribly laid-out page. This is a full rethinking of the title and changes entirely how we consume long-form writing.
I know the app has been around for a while but in-app purchases really clinched it for me. I was able to tap the latest issue in the app and it was available immediately. Then I could tap an issue I seem to have missed a few weeks before and there it was, ready to go. It was a smooth and seamless experience.
There is something in our core that loves a book. We love the paper, the smell, the visual cues and dog-eared bookmarking techniques. But I wonder if this is a learned response, handed down to us in a long line that began with Gutenberg and ended with Mom, Pop, and our favorite English teacher. I wonder if my kids will care about books as much as I did – the physical objects, not the stuff inside – and whether their kids will even know books exist. There are generational overlaps that happen all the time. My father’s old records, once wildly important to him in the 1960s and 70s ended up in my hands in the 90s and taught me to love Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones. But will I ever fire them up again? No. Those records were the last gasp of a discovery engine that stopped when the last mass-market LP was sold in the last Tower Records store. That engine can’t start again, but I suspect my own son will find my old CDs, become curious, and then go off on a journey of his own. I wonder how his son, years from now, will find my son’s discarded bits and reconstitute them into music, but that’s a sad and metaphysical thing – the passing of bits from parent to child – that I don’t even want to ponder.
Talk all you want about how paper isn’t going anywhere and how there are still billions of people who depend on books in distant countries where educational- and news-reading is still stuck in the Paper Age. I think the first wave will break when colleges go iPad-only and those same educated students will teach their children from the iPad. The next wave comes when the children’s book binders start shuttering their plants and the final wave will come when the print newspapers and magazines fall en masse along with publishers. They will exist, but they will have changed.
What does this mean for the magazines that are currently print-only? Well, they have to become more interesting. They have to embrace the flow of news and information and they have to differentiate themselves from us blogger hacks by spending real money on stories. This is hard. They’ve been used to a steady stream of revenue from print subscriptions. They’ve been used to long lead times, plenty of time to prepare, and they’ve been held hostage by the old methods of top down editorial. They claim that advertisers can’t wrap their heads around the Internet. But they can – it’s been proven again and again. A few tech titles, PC Magazine and Laptop come to mind immediately, have already made this leap. Others will follow.
The New Yorker iPad app proves that great writing is great writing, no matter how it’s displayed. It is new wine poured into new wineskins: everything works, nothing is strange, and the product tastes as sweet as it did in the old skins.