About a year ago, I was hired away from my job at a national magazine — okay, it was a fashion magazine, Harpers Bazaar — to become the book editor for a start-up online journal called Salon. This wasn’t a hard decision to make. Bazaar was an alien universe, particularly for someone (namely me) who has roughly as much clothes sense as Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczinsky. I was also bone-tired of composing sentences that contained references to high cheekbones and Prada bags. My one regret, as I cleared out my desk on the final day, was that I wouldn’t be bumping into Naomi Campbell in the elevator anymore.
Signing on with Salon felt like being asked to jump through a different kind of looking glass. I was, at the time, a fairly committed techno-peasant. Content with my 10-year-old word processor and skeptical about the joys of email, I scorned as weenies those who droned on at dinner parties about hyperlinks or modem speed, or who spent hours divining the cryptic sayings of Wired magazine guru Nicholas Negroponte.
Actually, I still scorn a lot of those people. Manhattan is thick with “New Media” types these days, goateed young networkers who, 10 years ago, would have gone into advertising or junk bonds. But what I quickly found out about the online world is that it is also full of serious, literate people who believe — as Leon Wieseltier puts it in this week’s New Republic — that the computer, “like all technology, will lend efficiency to our ends, but it will make the devising of those ends no easier.” In other words, ideas and language still matter.
I didn’t become wired overnight. It took me a few months to adjust to the subtleties of email conversation, although I am now an addict. I work from New York for a magazine that is based in San Francisco, and I speak to the editors on that coast via telephone only once a week or so. The rest of our communication is via email — a mode of discourse that seems so much more playful and nonintrusive than the telephone. It took much longer, however, to adjust to the idea that I was working for a magazine that didn’t exist on paper, that merely flickered like a billboard out in the electronic ether.
My worries about this were several. The first, and admittedly the greediest, was a concern that I’d be throwing my work down a hole — that nobody would be there to read it. Happily, this hasn’t proven to be the case. Salon attracts between 50-70,000 readers a week, which is good for any cultural weekly that doesn’t put movie stars on its cover. (To put in a quick plug, Time magazine recently called us the single best site on the internet.) My second concern ran deeper. I wondered whether anyone — myself included — would ever learn to interact as intimately with words on a computer screen as they do with words on paper.
This is a complicated issue. There’s no denying that reading from a computer screen can feel like homework: You’ve got to sit up in your chair, your eyes grow blurry after too many hours spent staring at a monitor, and worse, you can’t bring an online magazine into the bathtub with you. (At least, not yet.) Yet one grows increasingly accustomed to reading online — printing articles out is another option — and the best online magazines have quickly proven that they are worth searching out.
Here’s one reason this is true: Because online magazines don’t have to shoulder the massive paper costs that ultimately sink most print journals — or drive them to write about soft, advertiser-friendly topics — web ’zines tend to be freer, livelier and far less corn-fed than most magazines you’ll pick up at a newsstand. There’s a pioneer spirit and, frankly, a very healthy lack of concern over who you may be pissing off. This doesn’t mean that advertising is unimportant to online magazines; but it does mean you can get by with less.
Many bookish people, I think, feel a good deal of dread about the internet because they fear that it will somehow spell the end of books and literacy as we know them. But one of my happiest realizations about the Web is how it works as a complement — rather than a threat — to “off-line” reading. I read no fewer books or magazines in my spare time these days, but I do watch less television. That’s because I’d rather be online reading the periodicals I can’t find — or can’t afford to buy — at my local newsstand.
A full year into my new job at Salon, there are still a few things that strike me as notably different from working at a print magazine. Some of these things are wonderful; a few of them are a little more ... weird.
One difference is how much more communal and in touch with its audience online magazines feel. Feedback from readers, via email, is almost instantaneous. (When a new piece of mine goes “up" in Salon, I'll often hear from readers in Italy, Australia and New Jersey before an hour has passed.) This communal nature is most evident in Salon's discussion area, called TableTalk, where readers post comments about hundreds of topics — and not just about what’s in the latest issue.
I like these forums, but I don’t confuse them with any online magazine’s actual content. Perhaps I’m an elitist, but I tend to agree with Slate editor Michael Kinsley’s comment that when you want to go to a restaurant, “you want the chef cooking dinner, not the person at the next table.”
Another difference at online magazines is that you know exactly how many people read each article. My editor can literally call me up — although he hasn’t yet, thank God —- and say, “Well, big guy, 2401 people read the first page of your article yesterday, but only 372 jumped to the second page.” This, of course, is any writer's worst nightmare. My heart sinks at this kind of information, and not just because few people wanted to finish my piece. It's because, in the wrong editor's hands, this kind of information can be used to justify bad but ostensibly "popular" decisions, like running frequent, attention-grabbing headlines about sex, Elvis or diets.
One final difference about online magazines is that they never feel completely finished. On the rare occasion when there's a misspelling in Salon, for example, we can go online and silently clean it up. But larger issues are raised when an error of fact sneaks into an online magazine. Editors are forced to ask ourselves: Is the error significant enough, and has it been "up" for a long enough period of time, that we should print a correction? Or can that be airbrushed away, too, the same way unpopular leaders were wiped out of old Soviet Politiburo photographers?
Salon's editors are scrupulous about printing corrections when errors are pointed out. But one wonders at the interesting libel issues that could be raised at magazines where editores are not so careful. That is, where an offensive passage can simply vanish – poof! – with little evidence that it was ever there at all.
Web magazines, like the internet itself, are still clearly in their rodeo days, and my worries about possible abuses pale beside my fascination with the genre's opportunities. For now, I'm just happy to be hanging on for the ride.