Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Twilight of Print Magazines

 I don’t expect to live forever, but I do intend to hang on as long as possible.”

Isaac Asimov

I’m rearranging some shelves in the office — a periodic activity, given the volume of books I have and continue adding to my collection — and I’ve come across some racks with old copies of WWII History magazine. I decided to peruse them one more time, extract any articles that interest me to arrange in a binder, and recycle the rest. The process reminded me why I like (and miss) magazines along with a few other observations.

Over the years I’ve maintained numerous magazine subscriptions catering to my interests, though I let many of them lapse due to financial situations (the “Desperate Freelancing Years”), saw some transition to primarily digital format, and watched many disappear as they succumbed to wholesale changes in print media. For years I had subscriptions to such stalwart publications as National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine. As a gamer I subscribed to Dragon, the Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, and Challenge. While working at West End Games I received complimentary subscriptions of several periodicals, including the Star Wars Fan Club magazine, Pyramid, Shadis, and InQuest.

In recent years I’ve culled magazines from my shelves and storage boxes. Some I sold, others I recycled. I clipped interesting articles from most of my miscellaneous gaming magazines and piled them in a file before tossing the remains. I still keep certain magazines I value: my run of Dragon, The Journal of the Travellers Aid Society, and Challenge; the few years’ worth of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt with its up-to-date coverage of Egyptian archaeological developments and full-color photo spreads. I have an odd box of some early gaming magazines and APA zines I came upon over the years, and a magazine box with a few issues of Wargames Illustrated and other odd warfare/wargaming periodicals.

I’ve always had an interest in World War II, probably kindled by my parents’ enormous Life’s Picture History of World War II and watching too many war movies growing up. I already had a solid grasp of the period, especially having written a number of related roleplaying game books, including the Raiders of the Lost Ark Sourcebook and Weird War II: Afrika Korpse. But I am always learning, so my reading and gaming about this history continued. I started getting WWII History magazine as a gift subscription years ago, around 2006. I enjoyed the quarterly periodical for several years, until I realized the content wasn’t as refreshing, particularly given my reading on the subject. I don’t recall ever reading it cover-to-cover, but I always found several articles of interest in each issue (as one does in any good periodical).

As I page through WWII History I have several impressions about magazines in general:

Periodical Buffet: A good magazine offers a wide range of articles focused on a broad subject. People subscribe based on the basic premise and get varying levels of satisfaction depending on how many articles engage their interest. It’s like a buffet, just enough to whet one’s appetite with a few choice morsels, to provide a broad range of information for more specific exploration later. Although I knew a lot about the period, most articles in WWII History presented focused perspectives on aspects of larger events with which I was familiar; by its nature the coverage was quite broad, spanning different periods and theaters of the war, personalities, equipment, campaigns, and engagements. Some articles in areas I hadn’t yet dabbled seemed “new to me” and in many cases I’ve since read books offering a far deeper examination of such articles.

Intrusive Advertisements: I understand publications need ad revenue to offset costs. In our Internet Age ads of various kinds pummel us as we surf websites: banner ads, pop-ups, videos, all with differing frequency of annoyance and disruption. Print magazine ads also seem intrusive, but they’re easier to ignore while immersed in reading an article. They don’t impede our ability to view the text or keep us from turning a page like they sometimes do when we try accessing or scrolling on a website. For my immediate project advertisements simply get in the way of a tidy-looking page as I trim pages and arrange them in sheet protectors and a binder. I expect each page will have some ads — despite my perfectionist impulse to have my tearsheets look like pages from a book — but I also don’t expect to have to wade through a page with only a third of content and two-thirds ads. I remember National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine usually positioned full-page ads between articles, leaving the text and stunning photography to stand on its own (at least for the feature pieces).

Period Advertisers: For all my complaints about intrusive ads, I’m enjoying seeing who advertised what in those “old” issues of WWII History. I ignore most of the smaller ones (for travel, collectors, and such) but love the full-page ads for familiar advertisers: Hobby Bunker, Classic Toy Soldiers, Decision Games, and Avalon Hill games like Axis & Allies board games and the associated miniatures games (which I collected and played for a while). It’s also interesting to note, all these years later, which companies survived the test of time and trying economic crises (notably all the ones I mention above, though Avalon Hill seems to linger as a subsidiary of Hasbro...).

Limited Reference: Magazines have limited utility as reference materials. Back in the 20th century publishers sometimes released annual indices or ones covering a decade’s worth of issues. More prominent periodicals maintained print indices available through most libraries. Right now I’m just perusing my issues and tearing out articles of note; but I rely on individual table of contents to spot interesting pieces. It’s not ideal or efficient. For instance, I can’t seem to find an article I know I read in the magazine about American M3 Stuart tank forces engaging Vichy French R-15 tanks during the early days of Operation Torch (a scenario I used for a 6mm Panzer Kids battle at a convention years ago). Today, with magazine content migrating to the internet, search engines provide this utility, assuming past issues found their way to online formats. WWII History offers an online subscription with its print subscription, including access to back issues, so I suppose this marks an improvement over print media.

Space: I am a pack rat; I’m loathe to part with materials, especially print media, despite it’s gradual disappearance in the 21st century (a century of which I’m quickly wearying). I still haven’t become accustomed to consuming print media on a screen, at least not efficiently or for any length of time. But keeping print media consumes space. I used to store periodicals neatly organized in magazine boxes for future reference. Now they compete for finite shelf space with books and games catering to similar interests. Given their limited reference utility and value (compared with books) I’ve reluctantly embarked on my mission to save the most relevant WWII History articles and toss the rest of each issue in the recycling bin. I hate having to do this. I suppose my reluctance reflects my own growing obsolescence.

I’ve lamented the passing of the print magazine format before. The Internet Age spawned an explosion of media — blogs, podcasts, videos, and other formats — giving everyone more access to that media and the ability to create and share it themselves. Far too often I see a corresponding decline in quality; or perhaps, with an exponentially greater volume the percentage of mediocre to poor quality material remains the same, but seems larger. Without editors to help ensure quality and curate content to specific audiences, individuals must become their own editors, discovering and selecting websites and content creators catering to their interests (an issue I’ve also discussed before).

In my own way, despite the decline of print magazines, I continue curating my own print-media journey wandering through the expansive online landscape (though I’m half-tempted to say “wasteland,” but I’m not quite that disheartened yet). In this Internet Age when I come upon an “article” on a website I can usually print it to PDF for future reference, often without advertisements interfering with the content. In some cases, for pieces I like but can’t extract without ads, I’ll cut and paste the text into a word processor file and re-format it into something easier to read. I have a binder or two of articles on game-related subjects I’ve printed for easier reading; they cover such subjects as professional wargames, the history of games, games in education, and game mechanics.

I expect technological “advancements” in all forms of media will continue their rapid evolution as we stumble further into the 21st century. It’s already changed how we make and consume media; it’s also changing the dynamics between creators and consumers and the avaricious business interests surrounding them. How will we look back at this time in 50 or 100 years, when electronic media has all but supplanted analog formats? What of our culture, our presence, will remain with changing electronic formats, online-only media, and few physical clues left behind?

“ ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

— Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias”

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