Protest and Survive
What effect will the new communications technologies have on current cultural formats, artifacts and institutions? Talkies put silent movies out of business. But the paperback extended the audience for the hardcover novel, and neither television nor videotapes put talkies out of business. Will the advent of journals like Slate and Salon and the arrival of bloggers--not to mention the availability of online versions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of print opinion pieces in electronic form--negate the need for the classic, stapled journal of opinion?
I don't think so. But then I'm told by my mostly younger colleagues that I don't get it. I don't. It seems to me that despite the benefits, low costs, speed and interactivity of the blogosphere, the depositing of prose in an electronic database cannot compete with the canonization conferred by those old-fashioned print journals, at least not in contemporary cultural terms. That an essay has survived the vetting process of a board of editors on whose political/cultural judgment the reader has come to rely (though not necessarily to concur in) tells the reader not only how to read a particular piece but that it may be worth the effort. Moreover, one's reading of, say, an Arthur Danto essay in The Nation on the end of beauty may be influenced by its being sandwiched between Gore Vidal's requiem for an empire and Katha Pollitt on "Are Women Morally Superior?" (I forget where Katha came out, but of course that is not the point. The unhurried superior quality of her prose, her argument, her moral sensibility is the point. And the rhythm of magazine reading and mulling is the point.) Over the long haul, these magazines provide their own narratives, a long-running moral/political/cultural paradigm complete with its own heroes and villains. Which is not to say there is not room for an electronic republic of letters to supplement its print predecessor.
Perhaps I am a victim of my own mail (not the hate mail, of which I receive more than my share but the other kind). Only today I found this message on my voice mail from a woman who identified herself as a 68-year-old widow: "I need to ask a favor of you. I'm stuck in Abbeville, Louisiana, and I want to move, but I want to move somewhere where I can see a Democrat before I die. It occurs to me that you might be able to rummage up a place where people are actually subscribers to The Nation, where I would have somebody to talk to. I don't want their names or anything. I just want a town where there are a few kindred souls." And she added: "If you could call around noon I'd be grateful, I'm about to cut the grass." I have always believed that if Gallup or Roper or the latest public-opinion surveyor asked a representative sample of our readers, "Who are you?" any number of them might answer (never mind their vocation and religion, marital status, gender and/or sexual orientation), "I am a Nation subscriber." Just the other weekend in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, the featured wedding described how one Nina Rowe, the bride, met her groom-to-be. She found him on an Internet dating service under his handle, "nationreader." The readers of journals of opinion constitute nongeographical communities, whose self-identification and links with people they have never met are no less real for that. They are indeed kindred souls. Maybe it's no accident that the social anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who invented and elaborated the idea of the imaginary community, has a brother, Perry Anderson, who edits a journal of opinion, New Left Review.
Although last year The Nation took in more money than it spent, we're still subsidized by anonymous well-wishers, and what with rising postal rates, rising paper costs, rising healthcare premiums and our inimitable capacity to offend our most generous donors, next year we will undoubtedly be back in the red. More important, short-run profit can contribute to survival, but it is no measure of mission. Every publisher of The Nation, and I am no exception, has understood that it is a public trust.
So I end where I began. You need to run one of these magazines like a business or else you will be out of business. But if a business is all you are, you will be out of business, too. As The Texas Observer's founding editor, Ronnie Dugger, wrote in Volume I, Number 1 back in 1952: "We have to survive as a business before we can survive as a morality; but we would rather perish as a business than survive as an immorality." The tension between market and mission is unresolved, although the choice is clear. When in 2002 anonymous Disney executives were talking about shutting down ABC's Nightline because it had "lost its relevance," a part of me thought that if relevance is measured by the bottom line, they are right. I was glad to be in the un-mass media.
How conveniently they forget.