On printed RSS feeds

[x-posted at Gelf]

This week, all across our late, great nation, people began receiving the first issue of mine, Time, Inc.’s attempt at a customizable magazine. It is, admittedly, an experiment, though that hasn’t prevented a spate of “this sucks” on Twitter. After spending some time with mine, or at least its first issue, I can say it feels like more of a prelude to a focus group than a legitimate business model. Still, a quick survey of the magazine, with special attention paid to its handling of Sports Illustrated, since that’s the only eligible title to which I subscribe, sheds light on the recent debate over ad-editorial boundaries.

A quick catch-up: In March, Time, Inc. unveiled a website that allowed the first 31,000 respondents to select five titles from a list of Time, Sports Illustrated, Food & Wine, Real Simple, Money, In Style, Golf, and Travel + Leisure. Based on their choices, Time, Inc. promised to deliver readers a five issue, 10-week run of their own personal magazine. (The next 200,000 users could follow the same process for an online version that mimics the look of the print title.)

The first issue of mine opens with a lightly annotated table of contents and a short, unsigned welcome note. That note promises “a groundbreaking shift in the way magazines are made,” but mine‘s production values suggest the ground has broken for the worse. The cover features an image of what seems to be the eight possible titles—except the real Sports Illustrated is not a perfect-bound magazine, and the stand-in volume has the SI logo clumsily Photoshopped on its spine. In short, mine‘s external packaging looks and feels cheap, like that of a second-tier city magazine.

The internal content fares much better, as it mirrors that of the original magazines. To unify the look, though, mine shrinks each page enough to add a half-inch gold border. While not a big deal by itself, this border could really ruin the aesthetic of Sports Illustrated’s full-bleed photography (meaning no page margins)—of, for example, their iconic “Leading Off” shots. These small sacrifices add up, to the point that mine becomes less than the sum of its parts. At the very least, it feels like the direct opposite of David Granger’s philosophy, which the Esquire editor summarizes as, “Magazines have to become more magaziney rather than less magaziney.”

Since voicing that theory last year, Granger has put it into practice with an electronic cover, a “mix and match” cover, and a cover featuring an “open here” ad. This last choice has drawn criticism for blurring the ad-editorial boundary, and the most interesting aspect of mine is how it fits into this broader debate. Time, Inc. will rely on only one advertiser, the Lexus 2010 RX, to buy four full-page ads in each issue of mine. The first issue’s cover also came wrapped in a small ad for the new SUV, and its punchline (“We Couldn’t Have Made It Without You”) points to the potentially disturbing overlap between the gimmicks of mine‘s advertising and its form.

The most obvious examples here are mine‘s customized ads. In practice, they hit and miss. No New Haven resident can deny the value of the RX’s “available Heads-up Display for keeping your eyes on the road because 1-95 can be tricky on your way to New York City”; but when another ad, based on my wife’s answers to mine‘s sign-up questions, assures me that “we know how much you love redecorating your home, and with our available voice-activated Navigation System, it’s easy to locate the best antique shops near New Haven”—well, let’s just say the closest thing we own to an antique is our actual car. More importantly, though, mine calls attention to the novelty of these ads by putting the customizable text in a different color. It’s no wonder that David Nordstrom, Lexus’s VP of marketing, told the Associated Press he “wouldn’t call this an ad, this goes much beyond this.”

Now, to be fair, mine might be nothing more than Lexus and Time, Inc.’s cry for attention, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It certainly doesn’t feel like a standalone product, especially when the Sports Illustrated selections are so dated: Chris Ballard’s column on a women’s college-basketball player suffering from retrograde amnesia, which first ran in January; and Chris Mannix’s essay on coming to terms with soccer, which first ran in June 2008. (This may have reflected a glitch—Wayne Powers, president of Time Inc. Media Group, emailed mine subscribers to apologize for potential errors in the first issue’s content and to promise a sixth free issue.)

Still, mine‘s pre-launch hype took it seriously, and it’s worth considering its success as a finished product. When mine was announced, most people compared it to a printed RSS feed, but that seems like an insult to RSS feeds everywhere. Where RSS provides immediacy and the ability to manage large swaths of information, mine offers random, dated content. In fact, wherever mine‘s feature set overlaps with the Internet’s, it ends up highlighting not the virtues of print but the limitations—mine has customized ads, but Google does those better; mine has customized content, but not as much (or as good) as the web; and mine is free, but so (for now) is most journalism online.

The ideas animating mine can be effective in print—and maybe even more effective in print, as in Reason magazine’s 2004 issue that ran a personalized aerial photo of each subscriber’s home on the cover—but for that to happen, Time, Inc. needs to create new forms and ideas instead of emulating newish ones. Perhaps mine‘s most surprising effect is proving both Granger and the webheads right.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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