A Condition Of Magazines

The POD-magazine service MagCloud does an interesting sidestep around the "we have broken your business, now we want your machines" situation that the internet and clever people like Really Interesting Group present to newspaper printers (who are also, of course, a distribution solution — Newspaper Club newspapers get slung in the back of a van on a pallet right from the printers’ back gates). MagCloud is a Hewlett Packard initiative, and the position they take is "we will make the machines that make you do business with us directly." The print-on-demand machines, from slinging ink to punching binding, are all HP’s. The base cost they apply is twenty American cents per page, which makes a 20pp magazine four bucks before you add your own mark-up, that being your profit margin. They’ll sell the magazine for you, and mail out the copies to your customers. It is essentially a costless endeavour to produce and distribute a magazine, given that you have a computer and an internet connection in the first place.

It occurs to me that it also creates an interesting condition.

"Does it deserve to be a magazine?"

Given that you’ve got a computer and an internet connection in the first place, there are easier and faster ways to, as THE DAY TODAY used to say, Speak Your Brains. There was a time when it was easier to slap paste-up on a photocopier and bang out a print object than it was to sling the equivalent volume of material on the net, but that time, like THE DAY TODAY, is long gone.

Print’s not dead, and print’s not going away, but, in the magazine space, a print object is becoming a rare instantiation of a cultural operation.

And if I’m asking (say) five American dollars for a twenty-page magazine, I’m in the position of asking myself if this really needs to be in print. Is this a thing that people will want to pass around? Will it be more present and compelling than the same/similar content being passed around as a link? Is it going to survive longer than a week before going in the bin? Does it need the things that paper does in order to resonate?

COILHOUSE is an instance of a magazine that really took wings as a print object. The blog is great, but the magazine is such a fucking fantastic object that it completely transcends and occults the web organ. But something like COILHOUSE also creates something of a hurdle: if this is a new magazine that deserves to be a print object, does Magazine X also clear that bar?

Since MagCloud opened, I have from time to time toyed with the idea of publishing through it. A non-profit magazine featuring short essays and art pieces by a selection of my strange and future-facing friends, for instance, or a long piece by me constituting a wonder-cabinet tour on some subject or other. But I find, on sustained consideration, that I can’t meet the condition.

Which in itself is interesting, perhaps. It may explain why I haven’t seen the take-up of MagCloud services that I’ve expected. (I have their new-releases RSS in my feedreader, and buy a bunch every month or two.) It’s not necessarily that the web does magazines better: just the appearance of transience.

The Rust Of Broadcasting

A friend of mine who works in the post-industrial design space told me once of a meeting he was called to with a terrestrial network television broadcaster. He does lots of interesting work with lots of interesting people, in a range of digital and postdigital fields. But he was really kind of antsy about this meeting. He said to me: "Television? Broadcasting? That’s, like aerials and shit. Pylons and towers. Huge fucking chunks of rusting metal." The strong implication was that he felt he was being drafted into a meeting about manual farming machinery. Having an iPhone meant that he really shouldn’t have to know about things like oxen and ploughshares.

All this was in pursuit of a conversation about television, specifically British terrestrial tv and "common culture" (which is ten million people watching DOCTOR WHO and talking about it the next day, put reductively), and why I want to write some. Why, in essence, I want to traffic with the likes of great rusting broadcast towers.

And I said to him, "I want to do some television before it, as we know it now, goes away. If only just to try it and feel what it’s like."

(Which is, I’ll allow, like taking a writing holiday in Portmeiron because Noel Coward wrote there, or working on a Smith-Corona because it has mythic resonance. But, you know, it might be instructive to sit in Dennis Potter’s chair for a while. Just as I once sat at a desk Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote at.)

But here’s a thing about the rust of broadcasting. Something Russell Davies, who works in what he calls the post-digital space, said a while back:

We have broken your business, now we want your machines.

What Russell and his crew at Really Interesting Group have done is wrangle deals with newspaper printers. Whose business, in an emergent post-industrial age, is certainly a bit broken. Huge fucking machines designed only to print newspapers, in a time when newspaper publishers are printing fewer newspapers. RIG set up Newspaper Club, that allows people to print their own short-run newspapers using these big lonely machines that are not running the volume they used to but still need to pay for themselves.

Sometimes, I look up at these rusting aerials and towers, in a time when TV comes to an increasing number of people through a ground cable or a phone line, and wonder how long it’ll be until that business breaks completely — and, more importantly, how long until someone comes for the machines and makes them a deal.