I was reminded for the first time in years of the existence of Gourmet magazine a few weeks ago when a foodie colleague of mine started talking about some recipes she’d made from it recently.
I used to subscribe to Gourmet some years ago. I stopped reading it because at some point, I just didn’t enjoy a monthly reminder of travel I’d never be able to afford, dining I was unlikely to indulge in very often, and recipes that mostly didn’t excite me. When Gourmet made the news this past week due to its cancellation, it turned out that I wasn’t the only person who had felt the same way.
I didn’t stop being a foodie when I stopped reading it. I didn’t stop reading it because the Internet came into being and replaced old-media. Something did change in my media and consumer habits, though, and maybe the Internet has had something to do with this change (whether cause or effect, I’m not sure). I stopped thinking of some of my media and leisure consumption as habitual, or as a kind of personal tradition. And I started having a much more pronounced hair trigger when it came to changing that consumption. Gourmet or anything like it stopped being habitus, a thing that defined an aspirational life or state of mind. I started reading Cook’s instead because it seemed practical and useful. But I’m just as much on a hair trigger with that as I am with anything these day. Christopher Kimball’s completely inane frontspiece to every single issue is enough alone to make me pull that trigger, but in the latest issue, they’ve started sequestering some of the content in the print magazine behind a paywall on the website. That’s pretty much the end for me.
This is the real issue for a lot of old media. They used to be a habit, a tradition, a part of life. As such, you ignored what you didn’t use or like the same way you ignore a tear or a stain in a piece of furniture that you otherwise find comfortable and can’t afford to replace anyway. But now I think a lot of audiences have a much more active imaginative engagement with what they read, and much less patience for a publication that isn’t nimble in its response to the needs and desires of its readership. You go to old media for a kind of quality you can’t get in new media, but now we expect much more for our (relatively small) payment.
On the other side of the fence, though, it’s curious to see how much an old rhetoric about an expectation of quality still informs the way that some readers interact with new media. I was struck a bit by this right here at Swarthmore recently. In recent years, there’s been an online campus newsletter, the Daily Gazette, in addition to the regular campus newspaper, the Phoenix, both published and written by students.
Both publications have editorial staffs and operate under an old-media umbrella in the sense that they’re composed of articles that the editorial staff has commissioned or reviewed and decided to publish, rather than being new-media platforms that are open to any content. In practice, though, it seems to me that any student who really wanted to write something could publish it in either, particularly in the Daily Gazette, which is purely digital and isn’t affected by an economy of limited space.
Recently, one student published a satire aimed at the activists behind the Kick Coke campaign here. Several students wrote a column in reply complaining about low standards in student journalism and calling upon editors and reporters to publish better, more meaningfully investigative work.
The divide between old media environments and new media ones isn’t about print and digital. Mostly, old media is now clearly a packaged product. I buy it, I consume it. If I’m sufficiently unhappy with it, I stop consuming it. Print journalists lately have been proclaiming themselves instead to be public servants, to be an organ of civil society, and made it out that the consumption of print journalism is a form of republican virtue. This may have been true at some point in the past, but if that’s the social contract between readers and reporters, the reporters broke the contract unilaterally some time ago.
If I’m unhappy with the content of new media, well, first off, change the channel. There’s a lot out there. If I don’t find the blogs I like, switch to Twitter feeds or asynchronous bulletin boards or what have you. More importantly, roll my own, if I can.
Sure, I couldn’t do a blog reporting on current conditions in Guinea because I’m not there at the moment. But somebody can. But I could and do blog about issues in higher education, scholarly writing, U.S. politics and popular culture. Making your own media tends to connect you to others who are making media that provides some of what you can’t provide for yourself.
In a new media environment, complaining that someone should not publish work that you find to be of low quality is mismatched rhetoric ported over from old media consumption. You can certainly criticize such work, though often I think it’s best to just ignore what you really disdain. If it’s not what you think should be said, though, it’s up to you to say it. So in the case of the Swarthmore debate, for example, it feels oddly antiquated to me to see students (especially students with activist aspirations) arguing that it is the responsibility of student editors to provide the readership with a different kind of content while suppressing other kinds of content. A digital publication can shrink or grow dynamically in response to the amount of material provisioned to it by authors and creators. It doesn’t have a resource or price limitation that forces an editor to choose to publish a satire or an investigation, a light piece on fashion or a serious treatment of a public issue.
For a student at a college like this one, there’s nothing easier than writing what you’d like to write about the life and culture of the institution. There’s a lot of information lying around waiting to be used. The best complaint is not a demand that others write and publish differently. It’s rolling your own, saying what you think ought to be said, putting your own name and reputation on the line.
I’m completely happy to relate to some media and forms of information passively, to buy it and stop buying it as a product depending on my satisfaction with its quality. I might even warn a producer that they need to change the product to keep me pleased. But if it’s the kind of media where barriers to an active, participatory role are low, that’s not the right kind of response. Then my job is to make what I want rather than demand that it be made.
Addition: It turns out Christopher Kimball knows that people hate his stupid frontspiece and doesn’t care. Bang! Goes my hairtrigger.