The Media Today

Q&A: Jeff Jarvis on what the magazine was

October 4, 2023
A newsstand in New York in 2007. Credit: Marcin Wichary / Wikimedia Commons

When I was a child in the aughts, and the internet was something I logged on to (and then out of) on my mother’s tortoise-paced laptop, I passed the time with magazines. I would rummage through their pages, tear out strips to stick on my walls, deface them with scrawlings in pen ink. It wasn’t just the sharp writing or cinematic visuals that made magazines appealing. It was their physicality, the way the glossy pages would catch between your fingers. 

I didn’t know it then, but the age of the magazine was coming to an end. In the two decades since, circulations have dropped and countless titles have folded or become online zombie magazines, their pages swapped for pixels. In his new book about magazines, Jeff Jarvis points out that the pages get their gloss from kaolin, a white-clay coating that contains very small traces of uranium and thorium. “Thus magazines are ever so slightly radioactive,” he writes, “which is appropriate, as the form is proving to have a half-life.”

Jarvis—who worked for magazines including People and TV Guide as a critic and writer, launched Entertainment Weekly, and is the outgoing director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s journalism school—has two books out this year. Magazine, from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, is a slim, lively volume that mixes institutional history with memoiristic recollection to tell the story of the rise and fall of the magazine era. The Gutenberg Parenthesis (Bloomsbury) is wider in sweep, exploring how the internet is closing a chapter of print culture that dates back to the development of the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century. Ahead of the launch of Magazine, which hits shelves tomorrow, I spoke with Jarvis about the form’s role as a convener of national conversation, its association with elitism, and its future in the internet age. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

JB: As you outline in your book, the magazine began around the eighteenth century as something for a small community of enthusiasts; only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did it become something for a mass or national audience. You write that we’re going back to the small-community model. Can you tell us a bit more about that idea?

JJ: Before print, society was conversational, and in the early days [of print], it remained conversational. It was the mechanization and industrialization of print that robbed us of conversation and put it in the hands of top-down institutions, like magazines. The magazine was core to conversation in [Jürgen] Habermas’s “public sphere,” in the [London] coffeehouses with the Spectator and Tatler. When Harper’s started, in 1850, print had begun to explode, there was a new abundance of content, and its first mission was curatorial—to help people find the good stuff. Then came not just the steam-power press, but also the Linotype, a typesetting machine—magazines could scale and become big. At the same time, a new business model was invented in 1893, when Frank Munsey decided to publish a dime magazine, losing money on every copy but making it up on advertising. Thus was invented the mass-media business model, the attention economy that plagues us still online.

With the arrival of the internet and the demolition of this mass market that existed for a brief time in the twentieth century, is that where we’re headed—magazines will again become something for a local community or group of enthusiasts to convene around?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I hope so. I think magazines as a genre missed a beat with the arrival of the internet and so-called “social” media. Magazines were maypoles around which people gathered—around interests or style or taste—and they could have been the conveners of community. They chose instead to still be the manufacturers of “content.” There might still be an opportunity for the spirit of the magazine to be seen more in community than in content, and I know that’s heresy, because magazines define themselves by their own content and their voice. But underneath that lies something more valuable in this age. 

You say magazines thought the internet was just another newsstand for them to push their content. How might it have looked if they’d worked out a way to do things better?

When I was working with Condé Nast, I remember a very smart early digital editor at The New Yorker who said the magazine was a tower with windows all around; she wanted to open the windows on all sides so that the smart readers of The New Yorker could speak with each other. My boss, Steven Newhouse, taught me about interactivity and its value. But trying to get magazine editors to see that was quite a different matter. At both magazines and newspapers, we put our content [online] and we thought our job was done. We allowed the public to comment on it but didn’t interact with them, and frankly didn’t care. Magazine companies could have started AOL, Facebook, Twitter. But they thought they were factories for content; they didn’t value the voice of the public and the connections of communities. I could see an alternative future in which a magazine company literally started Facebook.

The book feels, at times, like an obituary for the magazine as a form. But you’re measured about the pros and the cons of magazines—in the sense that they were supporters of culture but were also founded on elitism of taste and class-exclusive gatekeeping. How did you tread that balance of capturing both sides?

I love magazines—I bought them by the pound, I housed them like a pirate’s booty. But I don’t buy them anymore. Magazines used to fancy themselves as arbiters of culture, but now the culture creates itself. Vogue is no longer telling you where the cutting edge of fashion is; you can see it on Instagram, TikTok. I started Entertainment Weekly, may it rest in peace [the magazine stopped printing last year; the website survives]. I wouldn’t start that today, because everyone can be a critic and share their views online. That top-down view—of serving the public with culture, politics, policy, arts—is still enviable, and I hope that we create new mechanisms to do that that are more open and equitable.

I want to read a quote from the book: “As an institution the magazine has fulfilled many roles: curator of the notable, nurturer of talent and art, cultural voice, polished mirror, distant observer, collected record of a time, national convener, community organizer, advocate and reformer, educator, aesthetic and literary model, entertainer, critic, birthplace of the mass market, arbiter of celebrity, fabricator of pathos and kitsch, prophet of trends, home for ideas, bulwark of institutions.” What’s worth salvaging for the future of the magazine?

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I tell the story of the first reputed calls for censorship of print, in 1470, when Niccolò Perotti, offended by a bad translation of [the Roman philosopher] Pliny, beseeched the pope to appoint a censor to approve everything coming off the press. I realized that he wasn’t seeking censorship. In fact, he was anticipating the creation of the institutions of editing and publishing that would do a pretty good job of assuring quality, authority, and artistry in the medium for half a millennium. But those institutions are inadequate to the scale of speech today. What I keep wishing for, and what magazines tried to do in their multiple eras, was try to discover, nurture, and recommend authority, quality, and talent. In a time of abundant speech, I think we can create new institutions to do that. That’s the spirit and soul of magazines. But I don’t think it starts with a few editors assigning a few writers to write lots of content. I think it’s going to look very different.

Your argument in The Gutenberg Parenthesis is that the age of print displaced the oral tradition, but that the latter is making a comeback with the arrival of the internet. You write that “the future is medieval.” 

I started blogging after surviving the attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, and the first time I saw someone else write about what I’d written, and link to me—and I responded, and linked back to them—it was a life-changing moment. I saw the properly conceived media conversation [on the internet]. A lot of what I work on is asking how we can recapture and improve that conversation. 

For a future book, with the working title The Internet We Deserve, I ask what people did to establish authority and credibility before the institutions of print, editing, publishing, libraries, and so on. I came across a concept called fama, which means in Latin “it is said.” It’s really about the reputation that attaches to someone telling a story, their subject, and to those they pass it onto. Books on the topic say that the process of determining authority and credibility was not based on institutions; it was social. I think we have to return to that now. The institutions that we created are inadequate to the scale of speech [online].

You were told at the start of your magazine career that newspaper people can’t be made into magazine people. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

I think there was some truth to it. Magazines simply had a different voice. What’s interesting to me is that it was never clear at the beginning what forms the newspaper and magazines would take, and they had distinct eras. [The media theorist] Neil Postman would argue that newspapers became newspapers with the telegraph—their voice, the idea of human interest, the sameness of their language—and Marshall McLuhan [also a media theorist] says that the Linotype gave newspapers a mechanistic language. Whereas magazines tried to recapture a more nuanced human language.

Both your new books were written shortly before the huge surge in generative AI, which has changed the conversation again. How have you been thinking about that?

AI has obviously been around for quite some time. With Google, we use it to finish our sentences, translate into other languages, and get us out of traffic jams. When AI became a consumer product, that’s when the attention changed. Firstly, I’ve been arguing to journalists that we should stay away from using generative AI to make more content—because generative AI has absolutely no concept of meaning, fact, or truth. We know this. So it’s irresponsible to use it to write news.

Secondly, I believe generative AI is going to finally finish off the commodification of content. One of the great lessons from writing both books is that we as journalists, you and I as writers, have so much of our value residing in this commodity we created called “content.” It’s a Gutenberg-era notion, that content fills the space between covers. With copyright, content became a property and a tradable asset to be sold. But if we shift our attention from content to conversation, it changes our view of journalists’ role in the world. Journalism becomes a service.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, eight far-right House Republicans joined with Democrats to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership—the first time that the position has ever been vacated involuntarily. CNN’s Oliver Darcy argues that Matt Gaetz, the Republican who filed the motion to oust McCarthy, is “a product of America’s broken information environment”—proof that “the Republicans who carry real power and drive the party are the performers who work in conjunction with partisan media, not those who wish to govern.” (Not that partisan media were united on the wisdom of Gaetz’s move.) Meanwhile, Democrats unanimously declined to save McCarthy. The party’s members were particularly infuriated by a Sunday CBS sit-down in which McCarthy blasted Democrats; Democratic leadership rolled the tape for members yesterday.
  • Campbell Brown, the former TV anchor who has headed news partnerships at Meta since 2017, is leaving the company—one more sign that it, and much of the rest of the tech sector, is looking “to mostly back away from elevating news content and instead focus on entertainment and viral trends,” Sara Fischer writes for Axios. Brown—who was “the face of Meta’s complicated, and at times contentious, relationship with the news industry”—will continue to consult for the company. Relatedly, Fischer reports, citing data from Similarweb, that traffic referrals from Meta and X (formerly known as Twitter) to top news sites have collapsed of late. “Business models that depended on clicks from social media are now broken,” Fischer writes.
  • When we published yesterday’s newsletter, lawmakers in the European Union had just voted to advance a sweeping package aimed at bolstering media freedom and pluralism in the bloc; the final text will now be negotiated with member states, some of which have asked for more latitude to spy on journalists, among other concessions. After the vote, Věra Jourová, an official with the European Commission, which proposed the package, conceded that those talks would be “demanding.” She also called out France—which recently subjected a journalist to forty hours of interrogation, as we wrote yesterday—for its “arrogant” attitude toward the proposals.
  • Also yesterday, police in India raided the homes and offices of journalists affiliated with NewsClick, a news site that has been critical of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi; police seized electronic devices, while two journalists, including NewsClick’s founder and editor, were arrested. A New York Times report recently connected NewsClick to “an international network that funds pro-China propaganda, along with other material”; a left-wing politician told the paper that she had been concerned that officials would weaponize the report to attack the site.
  • And the Washington Post’s Ben Strauss chronicles how a bitter competition between Adrian Wojnarowski, of ESPN, and his former protégé Shams Charania, of The Athletic, is defining NBA coverage. “Multiple NBA reporters and officials describe their relationship as something akin to Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the tension between them spilling across their respective galaxies,” Strauss writes. “It’s the only real rivalry left in the NBA,” one reporter said. “Everyone else likes each other.”

ICYMI: A moment of truth for press freedom in Europe

Correction: The Gutenberg Parenthesis is published by Bloomsbury, not Bloomberg.

Jem Bartholomew is a freelance reporter. He was previously a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s writing has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, New York magazine, and others.