Newspapers are sometimes called “the first draft of history.” One might think of books as the third draft.
Following the proposed sale of Rolling Stone and the deaths of Hugh Hefner, longtime publisher-auteur of Playboy, and S.I. Newhouse Jr., owner of Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, and The New Yorker (among others), an astonishing week has brought down the curtain on a sixty-year period of magazine dominance in American culture. And so, for just one moment now, as the glory days of these once-great magazines starts to recede into the rear-view mirror, I’d like to say a word for history’s second draft.
Through the 1990s, the magazine sections of newsstands had a particular, irreducible allure. Not quite a home for newsprint, not quite a library, they glowed with that second-draft combination of timeless ideas being marshaled to timely discourse.
From a millennial perspective, their pace probably appears problematic. In other words: what do you mean they weren’t instant? What’s the point of waiting?
Well, sometimes a great writer needs time to collect her or his thoughts and research into something longer than a hot take, but shorter than a novel.
A recent example is Evan Osnos’s 15,000-word “The Risk of Nuclear War With North Korea.” Half of it is carefully researched facts about North Korea, the other half a personal journey/narrative to Korea and back. If The New Yorker and Osnos have done their job, you barely notice the switching back and forth between the personal and political.
Yes, journalists still exist for things like this. But with the fortnight we just had (including the final paper edition of The Village Voice), articles like Osnos’s seem to belong to another era.
Teenagers might wonder: what were magazines? They were like websites, right, but on paper? Well, yes and no. They were like websites in that they both had, and showcased, distinctive personalities and points of view.
But in a world where new information wasn’t always instantly accessible, they meant something else. In a world that wasn’t so easily transcribed, digitized, rated, and ranked, magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker were more than just another website. They had aura. They told ongoing stories, and were never meant to be as disposable as a newspaper or a website. They told America, from a perspective. No, they didn’t have a comments section, just a letters page. We took for granted that they were looking out for us, and they often justified that faith.
They each had a brand, and that brand never implied being all things to all people. They were idiosyncratically “into” their own versions of truth and beauty. Because Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair featured and promoted New Yorker-class writers, they suggested that you could take the world seriously and also love, well, respectively, porn, rock, and celebrities. Give Vogue‘s editor Anna Wintour (played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, 2006) credit for exploring Muslim and non-emaciated women in more recent years. Give Hugh Hefner and Jann Wenner and Tina Brown credit for moving culture closer to their own biases. Sure, those biases were consumerist and sometimes shallow, but on balance, they redounded to a useful conflation of cultural and citizen engagement.
Major magazines’ promotion of the combination of pleasure and critical inquiry had an ongoing salubrious effect on the wider culture, even as these magazines’ privileging of white men had an ongoing meretricious effect on the wider culture. As America has become more aware of the need for diversity, they have improved, but knowing their early decades, it’s hard to cheer their fight against obsolescence. Don’t get me started on how long it took The New Yorker to feature persons of color in their routine cartoons.
The problem is, just as they’re becoming more inclusive, pop culture is losing the need for what they were.
This most transactional of all Presidents is in many ways simply a continuation of a 21st-century mentality that presumes that everyone tries to make as much money as possible. My media studies students are quick to defend the latest from Fox News or MSNBC as, “well, they’re just doing whatever they have to, to make money.” I have to patiently explain that they would make more money from “Big Bang Theory” reruns.
The big Silicon Valley companies – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (or as Europe calls them, GAFA) – abet this impression. They try to be everything to everyone. And every other website is presumed to be for sale to them for the right price.
Rolling Stone was never like that. Publisher Jann Wenner spent years turning down multimillion-dollar offers in the name of keeping the publication the way he liked it. 50 years, to be exact, until last month. Ditto Hugh Hefner and Playboy. Go ahead and read yesterday’s obituaries to S.I. Newhouse. He could easily have turned Vanity Fair and Vogue and The New Yorker into corporate shills. He chose to lose money to remain independent.
Maybe millennials can best understand blue-chip magazines as comparable to certain kinds of luxury foods or devices or cars. A Mercedes is never going to be everything to everyone. But unlike cars, magazines also maintain a certain populist aura, since anyone can afford one. There’s no such thing as a $100-per-issue magazine that’s solely for the one percent. (Nice try, Cigar Aficionado.) They are both for everyone and for that certain someone.
And unlike websites, you can walk around with the print equivalent of a Mercedes in your hand. And in the 20th century, far more than now, people did. And it meant something, that something being a little different for each major magazine. Dr. Hook’s song about being on the cover of Rolling Stone wasn’t really a joke – we could talk about a given cover of a great magazine for a week as recently as 2008, when Barack Obama and Michelle Obama appeared on the cover of The New Yorker as “terrorists.” (When Caitlin Jenner became the first woman over 60 on the cover of Vanity Fair two years ago, it was noted – yet the record itself was more footnoted.) A cover subject was imbued with a genuine aura now lost in the (curated) transparency of social media. A cover subject was a Star in the sense of a bright light in the sky, not just another light bulb.
This article I’m writing now is a little more in love with blue-chip magazines than I actually ever was. I hated the endless ads you had to leaf through (still a problem on the internet, but at least you can generally view content alongside ads). I hated magazines that made me strenuously search for the Table of Contents page and failed to start their articles until page 87 (or so). I hated those bulky Business Reply Cards that would fall out. I hated any kind of perfumey/cologney smell. I hated articles that started on page 50, continued to page 53, and then “continued on page 182” for two anticlimactic paragraphs.
Now that I think about it, I remember why the internet has been kicking the newsstand’s ass.
But in the end, something precious and wonderful has been and is being lost. At least monthly, America’s great magazines dared to interpret and re-imagine the world on their terms. They dared to suggest that through their pages the American Dream was both living and needing adjusting. They made us, and they also often made us smarter. They exposed us to brilliant writers, to ways of seeing the world that made us better, more empathetic citizens. In a information-saturated world that has devolved into internet arguments, this particular arguer would like to argue that sometimes, while reading through the latest great magazine, we were better for not having those arguments.