Print is dead

Part of my night-job-turned-day-job involves overseeing a magazine.

Sure, it's a magazine virtually nobody outside the organization I work for sees. Sure, it only comes out twice a year. Sure, I pretty much work on all of it myself, save for several contributions from my colleagues. Still, it's a natural conclusion to many of the things I did as a child. It's a natural conclusion to, dare I say it, my identity as a child: the guy who writes and draws newspapers on folded-up pieces of bond paper.

Now, of course, it's different. I have learned InDesign. That's what I use. I also have the resources of my work at my disposal. Apart from having other people write for me, there's also the fact that I have money for printers. Sure, I have to help raise that money by, err, curating a publication that is of value to my arguably captive readership, and offering it up to them as a place to hawk their wares. Still, I have money for printers. Back then I only had one copy of everything I did. Now, I have a thousand.

I went home later than usual today. I was talking to the printers. We're releasing another issue of the magazine next week. Despite releasing an issue only every six months, with everything else I do, this things still goes down to the wire. The writing is easy if I set my mind on it. Dealing with unexpected holes in the flatplan isn't. Ensuring you have every detail just right isn't. Heck, ensuring you don't have typos isn't. (I told you I work on this mostly alone. I have to beg people to proofread for me.)

But today I was talking to the printers, and today I saw the first proofs from the printer. I get giddy about this every single time, but for this issue I implemented a redesign, my first since I fully took over the magazine. I spent weeks tweaking grids and fonts and tints. (I told you I do this alone.) I don't have the privilege of testing those out on the actual paper we print on - I do not work for the media, after all - so this is the first time I am seeing all of that work outside of a screen. It looks good. All that reading of MagCulture has done me a bit of good, I reckon. But I thought that would be a lighter shade of gray. And that, too. And that, too.

I edit a bit, export a new PDF, and send it over to the printers. "This is good to go," I say. I head home at half past six, which is late for me, but knowing what I know about people who actually work in magazines, that's early. I may run a magazine, but ultimately I am still playing pretend.

A few years ago, when I first took over overall responsibility for that magazine - I contributed a few times before - I was talking to a colleague. He's young, upbeat, the overachiever kind, the sort who wants to look, and be, ahead of his peers. I've seen his sort before; they intimidate me with their go-getter nature, partly because I don't think I ever had that.

"Have you ever thought of shifting the magazine wholly digital?" he asked me.


"To save costs," he said. "And besides, everybody reads things online these days. Print is dying, Niko. You have to be ahead of the curve."

"But our advertisers might not like it," I argued. I wasn't the clued-up print geek that I think I have tendencies of being now, but the argument I was making seemed cogent enough. "They won't put ads if they know they won't be seen."

Somehow, I won the argument. That meant publishing twice a year instead of four times, but frankly that was a relief. Still, a part of me feels like I have to fight for the existence of a magazine which I have described since as the best calling card my organization could ever have. Sure, you can find out about what we do online now - that's also part of my job description, making sure people know about those things in as many avenues as possible. But a magazine that showcases both what we do and what we know, all in a polished package that can find its way, theoretically, outside of my captive readership? Not everybody has that.

But sure, this is all just the culmination of all the things I did as a kid. Difference is, now I don't have to worry about filling a whole spread with gobbledygook when I have genuinely run out of things to say, like this time almost twenty years ago when, on a whim, I decided to write an essay about Ninoy Aquino across two pages. I ran out of thoughts after one, but felt I had to push through and act as if I have more to say. Thankfully I am a much better writer now, or at least, I am capable of writing much longer; the cover story for this upcoming issue of the magazine runs at roughly 3,000 words. I have done 5,000. This shouldn't be a surprise to you.

I sometimes still believe the time will come when I'll be asked to stop publishing the magazine and just focus on more immediate, and more measurable, ways of disseminating information about the organization I work for. Maybe when the costs get too much. Maybe when the printers I contact run out of business from banks who still need printed material, or prospective politicians who still need printed material. I'm just making the most of what I get to do now. It's a trope, people saying your job should be something you enjoy doing. Me, I still relish the challenge. It's being paid to do fantasy fulfillment.

Tonight, Summit Media, one of the country's biggest magazine publishers, dropped the ball. In a frankly vague press release they described finally going "digital first" by dropping all of their magazine titles. Six of them will live on online; the rest, I guess, will go kaput, relics of a time when people still bought magazines.

My mother regularly bought Good Housekeeping back in those days. It was the late 1990s; the first ever Shopwise had just opened, and she would always pick up a copy of the magazine at the checkout aisle. I have been exposed to magazines before, but they were not always a regular presence at my home until then; I survived on newspapers, which is an entirely different experience altogether. I would not read the articles - well, I read the recipes, and I read the advice columns - but I would look at how each page looked. Same went with the other magazines my mother bought, albeit not as regularly. Granted, I was already predisposed to become some sort of print geek as a kid; those were the things I looked for.

I did not even notice Good Housekeeping stopped publication in the Philippines half a year ago. I frequented the magazine stands. I still frequent the magazine stands. I never noticed. As I grew up, the media I consume changed - or, at least, the media I was supposed to consume changed. Every male teenager in the early noughties was supposed to be reading FHM, never mind that it's not allowed, at least until you're eighteen. My parents didn't buy it, so I never got to read it, unless I visited my cousins and I perused their collections in secret - I did not read the articles, for different, and obvious, reasons. Around that time, what I did read were tech publications: Macworld was an obsession, for one, because I fantasized about owning a Mac. This was the time the swivel-necked iMac would be released. I would never realize that dream.

When I graduated, I went online like everybody else; my first job was for an online publication, even. But I indulged in my newfound awareness for pop culture by buying foreign magazines. Somewhere in my bookshelves are copies of GQ with Megan Fox and Natalie Portman and some others on the cover. There are a couple of copies of Rolling Stone, one with the cast of Glee, the other with Stephen Colbert, back in the days when "President Trump" was just a nasty joke. I read the articles this time.

I would notice that the magazine stands are shrinking. The PowerBooks branch at Alabang Town Center dropped it altogether, even. What were left carried the obvious suspects, meaning browsing would not be fun. I would see some attempting to revive the magazine. The battle between Rogue and the local version of Esquire was interesting to half-follow, in how their articles had the same cool, hipster-ish, obscure sensibility. Around this time I would begin buying Monocle, a habit that persisted long enough to make me get a subscription, a good decision in hindsight considering local magazine stores seem to have stopped selling it altogether.

It's now the only regular printed thing that arrives at my home - well, technically, a claim stub from the post office arrives at my home, but you get the idea. I still read the newspaper, but nobody buys it at home anymore, because nobody has the time to read it. I still buy when I can, but, well, life gets in the way. And, as they'd tell you, everybody's online now. No wonder you can't have reasonable arguments about politics anymore.

I could not make sense of the press release because it was just so vague. That, and I've seen the whole "digital first" malarkey happen before, when once-respected publications disappear due to cost considerations. Spin famously tried to package itself as a more premium publication, only to give up after months. Just last month, the NME, a venerable institution in British music, went online-only. It's a magazine I never read - it was never available to me - but the explanations seemed familiar by now. Everybody's online now, and we're having difficulty earning from ads, because they're online now, too. I see it for myself. FHM once called itself the Philippines' most popular magazine, but the recent issues I've seen at the barber shop don't even reach a hundred pages, perhaps a consequence of it dropping almost all of its nudity, and its readership jumping ship. (Let's be honest, though; both factors can play the chicken or the egg.) I don't even read those magazines at the barber shop anymore. I bring my copy of Monocle, because it's the only time I get to focus on it. My barber knows me as that guy who brings his own magazine.

The other thing I do that acts as a fulfillment of my media fantasies as a kid is my music blog, that writing exercise that became bigger than it should be. It's stressful and I increasingly have no time for it - I can write this long essay because I am on my regular week-long April break - but, admittedly, the reason I stick with it is because of the whole fantasy fulfillment thing. I have an editorial calendar; I occasionally get interviews with artists; I get noticed by more people than usual at the weirdest possible moment. I check my stats regularly.

I didn't start the blog because of long-seated frustrations about not being in the media, at least not explicitly. I tried getting a foot on the door, but I fail, constantly. I guess, in a way, doing the blog weaned me off wanting to pursue what's clearly an impossible dream, what with what's going on in the industry these days - the problem of revenue, of decreasing readership, of increasing choice, of the fact that you have to be well-connected (and, therefore, rich) to even make it to outside the front door. I can do this, just to keep the dream alive, and then I can do a more normal job to sustain me.

"Mag-computer science ka," my father told me fourteen years ago, as I pondered which course I would take in college. "Tapos mag-workshop ka na lang sa journalism." I hate to admit he was on to something, but then, here I am, indulging myself, knowing this wouldn't last, partly because I now realize I am not made for the media life, and partly because of the circumstances that prevent me from ever trying again in the first place.

I'll admit I was also deterred by the one time I contributed to a magazine, at the invitation of a former friend, and was not compensated for it. Whenever that possibility comes up, I no longer get excited, but rather, antsy. Just recently another friend of mine - she worked in print before, quit, and a few years later, returned, but this time to one of those niche publications wearing your usual "indie magazine" clothing - raised the possibility of me contributing. I didn't close the door, but I wasn't looking forward to it. I don't have the time, or, I don't have the balls, at least provided my mood at the time. And then we'd talk about our shared love for print. What else did you expect? We're communications students.

One essay I was meaning to publish on the music blog was the death of the local music magazine. All right, so the cheaply-published "song hits" are still around, surely. Pulp is also around as well, but it survives now mostly as an avenue for promoting the concerts it organizes, unlike when it launched over fifteen years ago or so, when it seemed genuinely exciting. I was actually thinking of Burn, the short-lived attempt at a music magazine from the folks at the Inquirer, which helped inform my high school tastes, and in a way, made me feel I was cooler than I actually am. I was thinking of Play, the cheap magazine that Tower Records, later evolving to Music One, always sold, or gave away, that seemed interesting even if it had a crap layout and was filled with nothing but press releases. Was that the magazine's name?

I haven't gotten around to writing that essay because I haven't had the time, and I haven't properly organized my thoughts, and, well, the idea of writing on a blog about the death of print seemed a bit sinister. In a way, I am causing its death. My fantasy fulfillment is killing the medium I've loved since my childhood. Print taught me to write in a level above I-tried-hard-to-hit-100-words school essays. Print taught many others that. Now we're all writing online, indulging in our interests on the supposedly democratic medium that is the Internet. Well, that's done nothing but form tribe after microtribe, and I see online music publications attract only the converted. Or that's me being cynical, but then, Rappler is supposedly the home of butthurt Noynoy supporters who hate Duterte and, therefore, hate the country; my observation is not isolated, surely.

"Print is dead," a friend of mine, who runs one of those online publications, told me years ago.

I'm more of a "print isn't dead" person. I subscribe to the idea that it'll stay, but it won't be as dominant as it was for decades. It will have to change. But then, I've read a lot about how independent magazines cater to particular niches - although the whole "thick paper stock, check; really small body text, check" thing is a warning sign to me to not even try them out. I've also read a lot about how newspapers can keep a printed edition but only on weekends, what preeminent newspaper designer Dr. Mario Garcia calls the "lean back experience".

All that informs the things I do with the magazine I help run for the night-job-turned-day-job. I only publish twice a year, so the challenge is to provide articles that will remain fresh for six months, if not beyond. I play a lot with photos, with alternative editorial treatments. I call the magazine an "essential briefing", imagining that it's something people in the industry I work with read for insights, never mind that I'm the least qualified person to do so. The whole "framing national issues through a supply chain perspective" thing is malarkey similar to "digital first" but at least it makes more sense, and not just to me... at least until I realize my readers are also gaining their insights online, too. But whatever. They still see value in this thing I help run. It's still the best business card the organization I work for can ever have.

I have not touched my latest issue of Monocle, at least not as much as I should. Because of the magazine I work on, I haven't had a lot of time. That, and a part of me felt a bit queasy after a former intern alleged she was not paid for an article she wrote for them, because she was just an intern. And this is the publication that prided itself, from launch, in paying for reporters and photographers and illustrators to go places, to not rely on press releases (at least if it's not one of the many advertorials they do), to "keep an eye and an ear on the world," as their motto goes. I admire their business model, of how they went into retail to both spread the brand's values and to fund the journalism. (And many others clearly do, otherwise Purveyr's Post, this hybrid of shop and barber at the hipper-than-hip Poblacion district in Makati, wouldn't exist.) I admire their steadfast belief in print, and not in an idealistic way. But to not pay a contributor for the work she did?

But then, what is print for these days? Is it a way to tell people what they need, or have, or maybe want, to know? Or is it just a way to show off how better you are than the rest? In that case, do you even deserve to live on amidst all the clattering of keyboards and mice clicking "publish" for the world to instantly see?

All I know is that I'm unlucky to have been born, with these aspirations, in 1989, which meant I grew up at a time when those possibilities seemed attainable, and had the ability to reach them at a time when those possibilities disappeared one by one. All I know is, all I'll be able to do is to pretend.

I arrived home at half past eight tonight. There was a claim stub from the post office. My latest issue of Monocle has arrived.

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