Archive | June, 2010

Magazine First Issues: Telling America’s Story

29 Jun

My good friend David Leishman collects first issues, the initial printed edition of a magazine; or generally known as Volume 1 Number 1, though there are some exceptions. He has a comprehensive collection of first issues for 20th century American magazines. And, along with the notable collection of Dr. Steven Lomazow, one of the finest first issue, private repositories in the country.

David’s at work on a book about American magazines in the previous century. He has a website that gives you a small visual taste, as it were, of 100 years of U.S. magazine publishing design and vitality at www.firstissues.com .

As my career has mostly involved working on print magazines, I have great interest in his work as well as a deep respect for it and his knowledge of publishing history. I have asked him to share a smidgeon of his insight in a recent e-mail exchange.

Crosian Views: When did you start collecting first issues? Why?

David Leishman: Well, I first started collecting one magazine. I got a subscription to Baseball Digest for my tenth birthday. My very own magazine, one that no one else in my family was allowed—nor likely wanted—to read. And it was all about baseball: players, stats, legends and stories, with ads for meaningful products, especially bats and gloves. What person in their right mind wouldn’t want to collect ’em? It took me awhile to realize some people would prefer a different topic, but the model was near perfect.

At 15 and 16, I spent Summer Saturdays working at Candlestick Park or climbing through stacks of Digests at Macdonald’s and Holmes’ bookstores in downtown San Francisco, hoping to find old issues and especially the first issue—a challenge that became a quest. I’d come home with the front of my shirt and pants caked with printer’s ink and dirt, and, if I was lucky, a magazine or two. My mother was not thrilled with my hobby.

And right about 1965, there was a modest explosion of new magazines covering what I thought were increasingly relevant topics: sex, rock and roll, and politics. And, again, the ads were important: concert announcements, bookstores, coffee houses, and record shops. So I picked up the first issues of the Bay Guardian and KYA Beat, and a handful of others over the next couple years, and I was hooked.

CV: How many 20th century American first issue magazines do you have in your collection?

DL: About 2,000, and maybe 200 from the 18th and 19th centuries.

CV: What is the estimate of individual magazines published in the previous centuries?

DL: Regarding the 18th century, there were only 18 American magazines published before the Revolution, and just one during the war, so I’d guess 50 is a good top-side bet.

As for the 19th century, it’s almost “pick a number you like.” Steve Lomazow estimates 450 titles were published between 1800 and 1820, but extrapolating from that the number of magazines published after the Civil War is a non-starter. The country and its population were sprouting and spurting like mad. Let’s say four thousand titles for the century. How’s that for science? And to put that in perspective, 7,000 new magazines a year was not uncommon by the mid-20th century.

CV: Why are first issues important? What do they tell us of our history and culture?

DL: Bear in mind, you’ve walked into the cave of an obsessive, so the answers will be a little long.

Throughout the 20th century, magazines ran like an artery carrying the heartbeat’s new blood to the nation, adapting as needed to stay alive. And the freshest breath of that life is often found in first issues. They are a singular representation of Americans’ devotion to optimism, to the new, to a belief in their vision and its usefulness, and even perhaps redemption. The Publisher’s Statement or the Editor’s Note speaks to and of an aim to “find a need and fill it” regardless of the odds…sometimes with a tone of the zealot, sometimes just for fun, but almost always from the heart.

As George Marsh wrote in 1908, “My policy in this magazine (Marsh’s) is to be consistently progressive. A frank, unbiased discussion of current issues and movements of national importance will form a very important part of its message. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,’ applies to-day as never before…..My single purpose will be to find out what the people want and to give it to them. Doing this at a price within the reach of millions, I am confident that I shall not only earn but receive the loyal support of the American public.”

Jann Wenner in 1967 described the derivation of his newly founded magazine’s title as, “…from an old saying, ‘A Rolling Stone gathers no moss,'” and closed his Letter by noting, “We’ve been working quite hard on it and we hope you can dig it. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bullshit, and bullshit is like gathering moss.” Forty-some years later, his magazine still can lead the evening TV news with its reporting; I find that important and re-assuring.

Regarding magazines and history…

To Merriam-Webster for some definitions:

“important” = “indicative of significant worth or consequence.”

Book- and paper-sellers categorize magazines as…

“ephemera” = “something of no lasting significance … originally meant to be discarded after use but have since become collectibles.”

Which doesn’t make first-issues or magazines in general sound too impressive. But I believe that magazines (and first issues) don’t just reflect or interpret our history and culture, they illuminate, record and inform our present…and have done so for 265 years, as we’ve progressed.

Change is always with us…and there’s a market for that! Folks garden, but most don’t get their planting tips from the first issue of Farmer’s Almanac (1818), because there’s a newer and easier-to-get home and garden magazine at the grocery store. Or they pick up a current events magazine, just as they did in 1787—and while the Constitution might be mentioned, it, like the soil, has been amended.

2,500 subscribers at the turn to the 19th century was huge for any magazine; by the turn to the 20th century we had our first million-seller magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal. Our population had grown 1500 percent. Even the fiber of our magazines changed—they were printed on re-purposed rags until the late 1800s, then moved to tree-based paper, run on enormous printing presses.

America was becoming an urban nation and growing a true middle class of consumers for information and goods—and by extension, a national marketplace for sellers and buyers. Right about 1893, publishers really began to cultivate advertisers as a primary source of revenue. For the next 35 years, magazines were the only effective way to reach that national audience, and even with the advent and growth of radio and later TV, magazines remained the leading ad market for 75 years.

Mass circulation magazines began to crumble from the advance of television and its increasing share of ad dollars about 1970—not coincidentally about the time color TVs became widespread. Life, Liberty and the Saturday Evening Post died, even with multi-millions of circulation. Actually, they failed due to their size, because the cost of fulfilling the readers’ demand eviscerated the declining advertising profits.

Publishers spent a decade rejiggering, and they moved to an increasing focus on specific topics for magazines—they went “vertical” rather than “horizontal.” King-size magazines still thrived, surrounded by a variety of mostly single-issue titles. But new, editorially broad-based, national magazines had become a losing game by the end of the century. There were still monster hits—Martha Stewart Living, Weekly Standard, O (for Oprah), for example. But the last great attempt at a general title—Talk, which was edited by Tina Brown, the hottest talent in the biz, and funded with millions of dollars—was gone in two years.

So, even in a death-spiral, magazines inform and reflect our present…as I look ahead to…

CV: Are magazines losing their significance in our webified American society? If not, why not?

DL: Well, it’s clear that printed national magazines are losing market share and money. Print titles that feature art and photography as a serious part of their content may be around for decades—think home and garden, lifestyle, and visual arts magazines, among others—but to survive, they’ll rely increasingly on higher prices for subscriptions and at newsstands, if the latter survive. And, of course, these magazines will have a site for general and specific purposes.

Web-wise, I think digital and magazines are a great fit–conceptually. But there are two areas that concern me as I walk the Web and talk to friends in the industry: Will Web ad and/or circulation revenues ever equal those of print, and if they don’t, what does that portend for content? As Woody Guthrie sang, it won’t be so hot “if you ain’t got the do re mi.”

Funds are what enable publications to become and exist as professional endeavors. The first magazine I worked for in the early 1970s had 4-5 people working in the research/fact-checking department. Even now, I say, “Crikey, that’s a lot.” But the ad department was bringing in a lot of dough. More dough=more fact-checkers=better magazine=more readers=more advertisers=more dough=redux. Assuming, of course, everyone is well-trained and working at a very high level of efficiency and productivity…professional, in other words.

Our increasingly polarized society will ensure an epochal number of polemics; for many, as Paul Simon sang, “”a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Those folks will be taken care of, and as one inflammatory blog dies for lack of funds, five will take its place. But, while these traditionally have been included in the family of magazines, I tend to think of them more as broadsides…or perhaps “narrowsides”…and they’ll be with us in whatever media you’ve got till we revert to amoeba-like creatures.

What concerns me is the birth and survival of magazines that simultaneously can publish, if not hold, two or more viewpoints on significant subjects, contributed by well-informed writers, and edited by folks who work with language and style all day, every day. And, of course, researched by fact-checkers. Those are the periodicals that will need to transcend medium, for their sake and ours. I’m sure there will be many success stories—already, I point to Slate as a model—but it’ll be an interesting ride until we reach what Clay Shirky called the “new experiments that do work.”

CV: If you had to pick one, what was the most important magazine published in the USA during the 20th century?

DL: Easy-peasy. Life in 1936.

National magazines and the middle class grew enormously through the first three decades of the 20th century, and telephones and radio broadcasts were available to urbanites by 1935. So we could read about and hear each other, but we couldn’t see what we’d become. Sure, there were pictures of celebrities and news-item people from many fields in magazines, but they didn’t portray the faces, the dirty hands, the glorious architecture, the beauty of the land, and the heart, soul and hope of America. Until Life.

Like the old bromide: It’s good for what ails you, and gives you what you haven’t got. The photography and the photographers were award-winning and world-class, the copy was chiseled-lean and evocative prose from master word smiths and editors, the support from Henry Luce’s millions was boundless. The magazine was worthy of its title.

CV: Excluding magazines in which you had direct or indirect involvement (e.g., Rolling Stone, Macworld/MacWeek, Mother Jones, Guitar Player and others), what are your five favorite magazines from the period covered in your book?

DL:  Working chronologically, I’d start with Alfred Kreymborg. His Wikipedia entry isn’t bad, but I’d add that I think of him as sprinkled pixie-dust that moved us from the turgid prose and poetry of the late 19th century to modern speech. He was a conduit between Ezra Pound and the earliest Little Magazines of the teens—Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and his own. He also played a backstage relational role in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show). His Glebe is special, but Others (1915) and Broom (1921) remind me that my collection is a responsibility—rare but important pieces of America on my shelves. Broom remains the most beautiful magazine I own, and the paper quality is to die for—thick and warm and buttery,

The Murderer’s Row of Time (1923), American Mercury (1924), and New Yorker (1925) is hard to beat, but I’m going with…Popular Aviation, hurried to press to coincide with Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 transatlantic flight, which it called “The Feat of the Ages.” Production was so rushed that the editors admitted they didn’t know if the cover picture was from Belgium or France. But it was Lindbergh! The biggest hero in America, perhaps in the world. Which had just changed, the editor noted: “The toy of yesterday becomes the necessity of today. The miracle of today is the commonplace of tomorrow….Flying craft will dot the air. The air is free—no rails—no streets.” Gotta love it.

Esquire, the 1933 first modern magazine for men. The greatest read in the country, mixed with cartoons better than New Yorker, and the ads were state of the art–as was the art. Engaging and fine. The little man logo didn’t show up till a short time later, but it started a modest stampede to logo-creatures when it did.

Ebony (1945) was the first nationally successful magazine for African-Americans. Like Popular Aviation, Ebony reveals my fondness for “topical” magazines, i.e., those emblematic of the events of their times. The decade following its launch witnessed the de facto full enfranchisement of blacks, first by Harry Truman in the military, secondly by the Supreme Court in Brown -v- Board of Education. I also have Concentration, an advertising study of 1950 black urban markets that documents the rising tide of the middle-class and affluence in their communities.

And finally, one of my most recent acquisitions, Computers and Automation (1953). It began life as Roster of Organizations in the Field of Automatic Computing, became Computing Machinery Field, and was finally re-named in Volume 2 #2. Whatever its name, it’s considered the first computer magazine, and its birth date is relatively close to mine—the only one of these titles created after I was. Which seems a good place to leave this missive.

CV: Thank you, David.

To contact David Leishman about first issues e-mail him at: dleishman@firstissues.com

iPhone 4.0 Upgrade: No Big Deal

28 Jun

There has been no shortage of well-reasoned criticism of Apple’s response to its well-designed/poorly-designed antenna in the latest release of its smartphone. “Just hold it differently” just didn’t work as a fix for those who claimed to be victims of the iPhone 4 maker’s predilection for form over function.

I won’t join that dogpile because Apple’s latest device is not even on my horizon until my iPhone 3G contract and personal budget permit. But I did upgrade my current hardware to the 4.0 software. Took five hours to complete. Net result after five tedious hours?

(Yawn! Huh? You talkin’ to me?)

The big 4.0 upgrade turns out to be no big deal, or even a big 4.fail for anyone other than latest hardware owners. The biggest change to my 3G handset was a somewhat revised view of my multiple e-mail accounts, and it now takes an extra step to launch Location Services from Settings than it once did. So, these inconveniences aside, I don’t see any reason for Apple to inflict 4.anything on its past users. Why steal so many hours of our little lives? What did we do to deserve the company’s ill will?

Maybe because we’re on the wrong side of history. PC history, that is.

In the PC-centric world backward compatibility is a core belief. What Apple is acknowledging with its iPhone 4 software release is a gesture not to abandon the old gear. Give existing customers a limited glimpse into the future with some muted features and enhancements in a upgrade, while buyers of the new hardware get all the bells and whistles. It’s a strategy perfected by Microsoft for MS-DOS, then Windows upgrades.

The problem for Apple, of course, is that the smartphone market is not the PC market. PCs are about commitment to an operating system; mobile devices are about contracts to a service provider. PCs are big and desk-bound; smartphones small and mobile. PCs with their operating systems, software, and data are near-permanent; smartphones are ephemeral, practically stamped with expiration dates.

When I get my next smartphone, whatever make or model, I’ll get my data moved to my new phone, get new apps for it, and start making calls. I may marvel at the device’s cleverness for a while, but my dependency on it compared with my PC is trivial. Despite having the latest and greatest iPhone operating system on my 3G handset, I am not locked-in. It’s not, as they say in the tech business, a mission-critical platform. It’s just a mobile phone no matter how I hold it.

So, why Apple foisted its latest iPhone 4 software on existing users mystifies me. It adds nothing to my iPhone experience. In fact, it was an irritating experience. Instead, to keep me (and others) as a mobile phone customer Apple needs to focus on choice and price, neither of which seem to be at the top of the company’s to-do list.

The Diary vs. the Blog

26 Jun

The diaries I kept from 1972-1974, thankfully, have been destroyed. By me. What drivel. Correction: what pretentious drivel.

In those days I fancied myself a political activist and set down in my journals the thin gruel of my political thinking. Screeds on Nixon and Watergate. Ravings about the military-industrial complex and the Vietnam War. Clueless babble about racism. Not that any of it was wrong. But it was lame, lazy, and lamentable prose.

Years later, when scanning old diaries in search of a date or place or person from my past, I re-read some entries from those years and shuddered at the idea that someone other than me could potentially peruse them. Wisdom prevailed over ego and I ripped them apart. At the time, despite never having read them, my wife said I’d regret the rash act. Not yet. One of the smartest moves I’ve ever made.

Since those callow years as a diarist, I’ve improved as a writer and have become a bit less enamored with my political insights, using my personal journals now to jot down events in my life and those who I care about the most. As such, my diaries are more useful for fact-checking my memory and less of an embarrassment.

On occasion, while glimpsing old entries, I will find a rant or a foolhardy notation that I regret. If it’s terrible, I will rip the page from the journal. But at least I no longer encounter entire years that deserve destruction.

Keeping a diary, especially doing so for decades, probably reveals a profound defect in my psyche. At least I know I am not alone. Many obscure people like me keep a personal journal to contain their thoughts and experiences. Even kids keep them.

Some bloggers treat their posts like a diary entry. There are even blog templates to appeal to such writers. But most bloggers do not write in diary form. I certainly don’t. There’s a huge difference in writing for an online audience, no matter how small, and writing for your eyes alone. A diary entry is less rigorous, more spontaneous than a blog post. It only seeks to entertain or edify its author. Perhaps the writer believes posterity is looking over his or her shoulder, but it is not very likely. Whereas a blog entry can, by happenstance, get read and commented on by others. Arguably, that is the blogger’s goal: get noticed and get a discussion going.

Not the diarist. The last thing I want is to wake up in the morning and see an ongoing debate scrawled by others in my private journal about my previous day’s observations. I am my own harsh diary critic. I don’t need others to tell me when I suck at it.

The Liberation of Deadlines

17 Jun

Deadlines encourage success. But if you’re under a deadline that’s not much solace. Except, think about this: Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition says the word was coined around 1855 as a description of the perimeter around a military prison beyond which a prisoner might be shot. The term became popular during the Civil War when military prisons mushroomed.

Today’s deadlines are a lot less final than those of yore. It’s unlikely you’ll take a slug from most bosses if you miss a deadline.

Although, I admit, there’ve been times as an editor that I wanted to take a shot at a writer or two whose grasp of a deadline was markedly different than mine. I suspect I, too, have been in some editor’s sights a time or two as a deadline approached.

Generally, though, successful writers are good with deadlines. It helps their career to be fixated on the deadline. As Woody Allen observed long ago, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” There’s nothing that says showing up like a news story, a feature article, a blog post, even a tweet, I suppose, appearing in an editor’s in-box on-time. Given the word’s derivation, it probably is an added relief to the writer to meet a deadline to prevent becoming metaphorical target practice for rigid editors who hand out plum assignments.

Deadline is so closely associated with publishing that a few people argue that it comes from a process in printing and is much less life-threatening to writers or anyone else laboring under a deadline. I prefer the prison-perimeter origin of the word. It strikes me as more motivating. And there’s the lovely support the prison history source gets in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), where there’s also this bon mot from Mr. Fowler, who, like many writers, has felt the pain of a deadline: “Its recent extension to serve for any limit beyond which it is not permissible to go (especially the time within which a task must be finished) is useful, although, like all popular new metaphors it breeds forgetfulness of common words…that might sometimes be more suitable.”

You might want to remind your boss that one of the great etymologists of the last century thinks “deadline” is a tad overused and often not suitable. Tell him, even Fowler says so.

If that’s not a possible defense for sliding past a deadline, consider this: being “under a deadline’ is actually a bit liberating. To be under that perimeter deadline in prison meant you had to be in a tunnel, unnoticed by the armed guards, making your escape. Once you get beyond that deadline, you’re free, liberated, at large.

Until your next assignment.

Tepid Tasting Traditional German Beers

15 Jun

When I first visited Germany in 1977 I took away a few lessons. First and foremost, the breads and the beer there were much, much better than anything I ever had in the USA. I loved going to the local baker every morning and buying a fresh loaf of Roggenbrot or a bagful of Brochen. Truth be told, I preferred going to a local Kneipe to sample some of the best beers in the world.

Living in Heidelberg with my friend Paul, after imbibing in a few, we would jokingly rate a given German brew as being the 14th, 22nd, or 81st “best beer in Germany, but it would be number one in America.” We were never wrong.

How things change.

My last few visits to Germany have all been fun, but the beer has been disappointing. Oh, it’s good. But it’s no longer distinctively better than what you can get here from an average microbrewery. And, yes, it’s still better than Budweiser or Miller by far, but those brands are no longer the benchmarks for American beer.

Germans are very traditional. They invented the so-called Beer Purity Law or the Reinheitsgebot back in 1516, which limits the ingredients to water, hops, and barley (yeast was permitted later once it was discovered as part of the brewer’s art). So, they don’t like to stray from their well-established Pils, Doppelbock, Dunkle, Weissbier, and other variants that have been around for centuries.

However, when you compare their great beers against the best from the USA and other nations, that strong tradition results in tepid brews. There have been many blind taste contests and sadly German beer never crack a top 10 list. In this one, only a single German contestant reached the top 100, coming in 77th. The microbrews from the USA are too numerous for me to count on this list.

I guess if Paul and I were sipping suds over here today and extolling the virtues of American beer, we might be slurring our ratings thusly: “The 33rd best beer in America, but it would be number one in Germany.” And we would be right.

At least he can still brag about the bread.

Economic Recovery Stalled in My Driveway

14 Jun

This weekend I thought my 1998 Saturn wagon was about to give up the ghost. After a hard drive to and from northern California, the engine could not idle and stalled without my keeping the accelerator pressed down. I decided to let it rest for a couple nights before calling a mechanic.

But I already knew what would happen if I learned that the car, which I had bought new, needed serious repair work: I’d sell it and not replace it. We would become a one-car family.

Unless you live in a major urban center, one car per adult is the norm in this country. For generations we’ve built our economy around motor vehicles. As someone who grew up amidst California’s car culture in the 1950s and 1960s, the American Graffiti generation, I have a personal passion for driving and an abiding love of cars. However, this year I’ve made a firm decision that our next car will be no car.

Once, having your own car, particularly in small cities without good public transportation, was an utter necessity in this country. But in the early 21st century, it’s an extravagance to be a two-car family. And my change of heart is hurting the economy big time.

If this was just my solo decision, it’d be no big deal. But I’m part of a much broader and deeper attitudinal shift that’s happening in this country. In 2006 and 2007 passenger highway miles driven declined. Not only has such a decline never happened two years in row, it’s never happened even once since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began publishing the number in 1960.

Fewer miles driven translates to fewer cars built and sold in the United States. According to the International Trade Administration, in 2009 domestic car and light truck production was 5.5 million units, down from 11.8 million in 2003. That means U.S. consumers spent $89 billion less on U.S.-made vehicles in 2009 than they did six years earlier. It’s little wonder, then, that employment in the auto industry has plummeted to 660,000 workers in 2009, down from 1.3 million in 2000.

Worse for the economy, unlike my generation that inherited its seemingly genetic affection for cars from our parents and grandparents, our kids and grandkids don’t have that love of driving in their DNA. According to government data, only 30% of 16 year olds in 2008 got a driver’s license compared to nearly 45% in 1988. Similar declines can be seen in 17-19 year old drivers as well. Needless to say, without a license, it’s unlikely these young adults will be racing to a car lot to get a new ride. That’s bad news not just for those who sell cars. It’s terrible news for cities, where it’s been estimated that as much as 30% of tax revenues come from car sales at dealerships.

As it turned out, my old Saturn wagon just needed a rest. This morning it started with customary ease and purred like a kitten. I guess I won’t be selling it for scrap after all. But the fact remains, I will eventually get rid of it (or my wife’s car) and we will not replace it with a new one as has been our history; a history we have shared with many millions of other Americans that is now evolving into one that is less car-centric.

This change makes sense for us as individuals. But it’s a change that is pummeling the U.S. economy, and is likely to keep this Great Recession rolling along for a few more years.

Location-based Marketing? Get Lost.

13 Jun

Given the state of GPS tools consumers use today, privacy advocates have little to fear from marketing geniuses who want to sell us stuff based on where we happen to be at any given moment. That’s because GPS devices don’t know anything about our position worth a marketer’s time, let alone money.

Take my bike ride yesterday. According to my MotionX-GPS app on my iPhone I hit a high speed of 27.4 mph. However, my Garmin 205 GPS clocked me at a maximum 28.6 mph on the same downhill segment. When I crested the highest part of my ride, the Garmin registered the elevation as 944 feet, while the MotionX product had me 43 feet higher at 987. Once I plotted my ride into Google Earth, the GPS software had me starting my ride from inside my neighbor’s living room not my driveway more than 150 feet away.

Until 2000, the military used technology to render commercial GPS units intentionally inaccurate up to 100 meters. But business interests prevailed and the Pentagon stopped screwing with the data so GPS devices today are said to accurate up to a couple of meters.

Fat chance. That’s not been my experience, nor that of users of Android, Tom-Tom, and other navigational electronics. Maybe the military just said they stopped messing up the GPS info and kept up its interference.

Although I am disappointed that these digital toys are so lame, I am slightly mollified by the fact that marketers salivating over the potential to pinpoint their pitches to where I happen to be standing are doomed. The likelihood that the lure of their longitudinal and latitudinal come-ons will be relevant is laughable today.