An Elegy for Magazines

Surely many other people made some mental link between the recent deaths of Irving Penn and Gourmet magazine, and the general doomsday atmosphere surrounding the magazine world. No doubt many of these people are smart and have eaten many more lunches at Michael's than I have eaten (zero), but I can't help butting in now because Penn was something of a personal hero to me and because, though I don't think I have ever held a copy of Gourmet in my Spam-stained fingers, I thought of it like I think of Paris' Hotel Crillon; I've never stayed, but I'm glad it's there.

I love magazines. Not all magazines, I suppose, but the good ones. My magazine love is not rooted in the fact that I write for them, the fact I write for them is rooted in my love for them. I love them because they are both more ephemeral and immediate than, say, Michelangelo's "David" or Welles' "Touch of Evil," but art just the same. As the New York Times obituary reported, Penn's first cover for Vogue was of a still life featuring a cigarette holder and various accessories arranged just so. How about that. Gourmet's editor Ruth Reichl once hired David Foster Wallace to write for her and he came up with 6,000 words (!) on lobster death. She ran it, God love her.

A good magazine is a combination of stories, photos, drawings, opinions, reporting, whimsy, humor. It is an art that is not reproducible nor replaceable by any other medium. At their best magazines are not "content," they are objets.

Yet they cost just a few bucks a piece. Imagine that. Imagine what you get for your money. You can travel to places you aren't likely to visit, meet people you are not likely to meet, learn about some topic you may never have wondered about but there you are, reading about it, because a magazine has delivered it to your eyes and packaged it in such a way that you wind up enlightened or amused or outraged. I have never, not even once, worn a formal gown. But the image of Lisa Fonssagrives in her black dress, holding some roses, speaks volumes about beauty, aspiration, possibility, desire.

Many people seem to think that anybody can do these jobs. I suppose this is true. Any literate person can write. Anybody with a point-and-shoot camera can take a picture. What magazines pay for, however, are voices. Irving Penn had a voice. Gay Talese has a voice. Ian Frazier has a voice. When I see the photographs taken by a friend, Bill Abranowicz, in a magazine, I can almost always tell it's one of Bill's images because he has a voice. When I see one of my wife's images in a magazine (yes, we're a two media career family; you'd think one of us would have had the sense to marry an M&A lawyer) I know it's hers before seeing the credit line because I know her voice. Magazines deliver such voices better than any other medium.

Yet magazines have been committing a slow-motion seppuku because they've lost confidence in their voices. The Internet and celebrity culture have intimidated them into draining some depth from their craft then throwing it out into the digital universe rather than treating it as the special form it is. They have abandoned much of what makes magazines great by trying to compete with the instantaneousness of the Internet and by reflecting the culture back at itself rather then creating it.

Take a look at past issues. I have a small collection from about 1930 through the late 1970s and taken as a whole, the art and writing were, generally, better than what readers are being offered today. There was much less caving to minor celebrity, much less dependence on cover lines to sell newsstand copies, much longer pieces inside, more story telling. Modern editors and publishers all say they love Gay Talese's "Mr. Sinatra Has a Cold," but who would assign such a thing today, to say nothing of running a novella-sized article? Could Irving Penn find enough assignments to stay afloat today? I wonder.

The Internet does some things well, but the best magazines are simply not translatable to the Web because they lose their essence when they are sliced and diced. A magazine is not just the one story you might want to read, it's the story and the images you didn't know you wanted to read, but that thing is in your hands and you're flipping pages and you are arrested by a picture, or a headline or a first sentence.

Yet magazines have been giving much of their best craft away for free on the Internet because gurus -- including Conde Nast's own Chris Anderson -- say everything is supposed to be free now. Well, tell that to the bank that holds my mortgage. Work deserves compensation and putting out a good magazine entails a helluva lot of work.

I have never understood this subservience to the Internet. Maybe this is why I've never lunched at Michael's, but I am increasingly convinced I am not wrong about this. If you make Vogue, or Esquire, or Outside, or Harper's Bazaar or any other magazine worth the price by collecting the best, most intriguing, most artful voices you can, and presenting them artfully, you have created a thing worth possessing. So by God charge that price. If you think you're creating the best magazine you can make, then treat it as the precious thing it is and people will come to you because they'll want to hear the voices they can't hear anywhere else. Advertisers will return. On the other hand, if you don't think your craft is worth paying for, then don't put out the magazine. Go make shoes or bullets or a cell phone that opens your garage door.