A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation on The Believer, which is a fabulous magazine that I cannot stop reading (and hope it never comes to that.) We stumbled into a discussion on the need of publications to glob onto the internet in any way possible to make money, increase circulation, become successful or at least survive.
After about 15 minutes of back and forth with the cohort, mostly due to my inability to articulate the function of a literary journal, the professor illuminated the situation to us as a generational divide. The publishing of literary journals is done for a specific audience who prefer or look for a type of writing to be held, read on paper, and published in a tangible object. Previous generations, and the old institutions they learned from, have a deep belief in the medium and the entangled habits of reading. For the current generation–the Millennials perhaps?–they grew up with words published on screens more than or at least on par with word published on paper. The internet is not only the primary source of text, but the only one necessary.
The Believer has developed some online offerings other than the standard website with excerpts and Facebook and Twitter announcement machines that keeps them from compromising their love of written paper-published long reads. This includes a recently launched a quasi-standalone podcast with KCRW called The Organist and a Tumblr site called The Believer Logger, both of which adhere to the tone and focus of the magazine, and keep a sort of brand awareness of it alive with long reads and deep audio stories. But that’s it, and it doesn’t exactly speak to a dominating internet presence.
There is a brilliant article on Medium by Joanna Scutts about her reaction to a New York Review of Books panel that was titled “The Future of Literary Journalism.” It turned out to be less about the future than the past, showcasing the lack of urgency and interest that can pervade a publication when faced with change. Which is the point that some of the group couldn’t see: Why wouldn’t journals or magazines whose goal is to succeed and exist be online and surviving like its competitors?
Because that’s not their goal, and not their model. That’s my answer, but that’s not good enough for The Believer, and completely irresponsible for the NYRB. Thanks to Mr. Magazine, I was able to get some clearer insight on The Believer (I’ll leave the NYRB up to someone else for now) with help of a 2007 interview from The Progressive with Dave Eggers, publisher of McSweeney’s and to an extent The Believer.
In a nutshell, Eggers trusts readers. He explains in the interview that the goal of the magazine is to grow with readers, or at least grow with the size of his audience without compromise. The cost of that purity (though the magazine has since accepted ads, but only to cover costs, and in limited scope) is a nearly un-fluctuating circulation of 17,000-20,000 and a trust in readers who look to read on paper, rather than a screen. It’s a niche existence for sure, and that they’re still in print is a sure sign of their success and belief.
BACK TO POST: The article also focuses a lot on the cultivation of literary journalists, the threat of criticism going to algorithms, and other literary journals, which the panel seemed equally under-prepared to discuss.