Anticipation, Reflection, Clunkiness and Grapes

by Steve Watson in June 2014
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Yesterday I posted my video review of Paper Later, and as I noted then, I totally ran out of time.

That’s because Paper Later is an ingenious new publishing product that takes a bit of explaining to anyone who hasn’t seen it before. But it’s also because the whole experience of creating, receiving and reading my copy was completely fascinating, and set me off on a series of thoughts about the wider role of print in the modern world.

Because as we all know, there’s a massive problem in magazine publishing. Put simply, there are so many ways to get words and pictures out into the world today that it sometimes seems bizarre that anyone would bother to actually print a magazine. Lots of people still do, but is that just because we’re stuck in old, pre-digital habits? Or is it because print has its own benefits that digital finds it hard to replicate?

These days I make my living from selling print magazines so I have a vested interest in believing the latter to be true, but I don’t think I’m deluding myself. Reading Paper Later was such a new but familiar experience that it’s helped me to understand those special benefits a bit better, and the following (long) post is intended to explore them in detail.

The wait for a new issue has always been one of the central joys of reading magazines. Just this week another fortnight of anticipation came to its climax when I saw the shiny new issue of Colors finally beaming down at me from the shelves of Artwords. I’ve been waiting for it to come in since I first saw the new cover go up on their site, and it’s the purest form of enforced delayed gratification.

And it stands to reason that when you’ve spent an amount of time waiting for something, you’ll spend a proportional amount of time to enjoy it. I absolutely love Spotify (I’m listening to it as I type this) but I hate the way I use it. Flitting around from one album or playlist to the next, I’ll listen to a new song for all of 30 seconds before deciding I should bounce off somewhere else in search of something better.

As Simon Reynolds puts it in ‘Worth Their Wait’, his excellent article on the changing state of the music press, published in the first issue of The Pitchfork Review, “In romantic love and in music fandom, absences and delays create the space in which desire grows. The remoteness in space or time of the ‘unattainable’ or ‘yet to come’ fills the present with exquisite tension, a forward-directed propulsion.”

The sense of anticipation I’ve felt for hundreds of magazines over the years was the same with Paper Later, but more intensely so. After all, this is a magazine I created. It was, in every sense, my magazine. I selected the articles to go in it, gradually filling up the pages in the preview layouts until I had a full magazine ready to go to print.

And the user experience was cleverly geared up to enhance this sense of excitement – they kept me updated with a couple of emails letting me know how my magazine was progressing, and when it arrived it came in a smart, sturdy envelope that I couldn’t wait to break open. I aim for a similar level of excitement with the Stack deliveries I send out, but Paper Later has shown me that I could definitely be doing more to heighten the anticipation and enjoyment for subscribers, and I’m sure the same is true for most publishers too.

The selection of articles drawn together for my first issue makes for a fascinating reflection of how I see myself. Again, this is something that magazines have always done – anyone picking up a copy of Monocle on their way through an airport is making a statement (perhaps knowingly, perhaps not) about who they are and how they’d like to see themselves. But with Paper Later the image created is even more vivid because it was made by me.

My selection took in a long piece on Britney Spears from Medium, a review of the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Modern from the London Review of Books, an interview with Chrissie Hynde from The Quietus, a David Carr op ed on free music from the New York Times and a piece on digital journalism from The Atlantic. I’m cool? Right?

I wouldn’t ordinarily say that I have a particular interest in veteran female pop stars, but I will readily hold my hand up to the fact that I put the Matisse piece in there because I thought it might make me feel clever. (In the event it sort of lost me, while the Britney and Chrissie Hynde stories were both excellent).

My Paper Later is a vision of me as I’d like to see myself, reflected back at me through the people I follow on Twitter. All my selections came via snatches of things I saw on Twitter, and yet my Twitter feed with its various streams constantly updating themselves never makes me feel that it’s creating an identifiable image of me. It’s only by taking a small selection from those streams and turning them into a solid physical object that the picture is created with real, enduring clarity.

As a sometime Instapaper user, one of my first frustrations with Paper Later was that I couldn’t share anything in there. Or at least not easily. I certainly couldn’t touch text to highlight it, then turn that quote into a tweet at the tap of a button. But approximately 30 seconds into that first article, the inconvenience became a bonus.

I hadn’t really been conscious of it before, but I realised that reading on Instapaper or online I’m in a constant state of readiness, always on the lookout for a smart one-liner to be turned into a tweet. That’s not a problem per se, but Paper Later changed the experience and made me aware that when I read in print I relax into it more and allow deeper, less immediately productive thoughts to form.

There’s something in the clunkiness of print that can be hard to appreciate because it doesn’t seem like it could ever be a good thing, but the difficulty and limitations of print definitely add to its appeal. Maybe that’s why I love watching videos of magazines being printed – I love the absurdity of the process; the fact that we live in an age when beautiful layouts of text and image can be beamed instantly to any retina screen anywhere in the world for free, and yet all around the globe there are enormous piles of paper being carefully trundled around giant sheds, having different colours meticulously rolled onto them, before being cut up, stuck together and left to dry in great smelly stacks.

Printed magazines don’t get version updates, but pleasure and usefulness don’t necessarily increase with added functionality. I spoke to a senior lecturer from London College of Fashion recently, who told me there’s research which shows that students who are given information on printed paper do better than students given the same information electronically as a series of links. Her theory is that the paper provides hard edges; a clear and achievable number of things to read and think about, whereas the list of links lead inevitably to more and more links, and the overwhelming sense that the task can never be accomplished.

We all need edges, and I definitely took more time and care reading my five selected articles in print than I would have done online, where there’s always the promise of something better waiting after the next click. Which brings me to my final point…

I didn’t consciously include two articles about the future of media for my first fiddling with a project that plays with possible futures of print media, but David Carr’s piece, ‘Free Music, at Least While it Lasts’ couldn’t have been a more appropriate match to the medium. In it he describes the experience of buying “some big, vivid red grapes” for $6, which struck him as strange in the instant because, “as just one more participant in the Something for Nothing economy, I’d grown accustomed to getting all sorts of lusciousness for the price of zero.”

His article goes on to comment on the ways in which the music industry has made it normal for people to expect their music for free, but he could just as well have written the same piece about the newspaper and magazine industries. These days content is cheap, but in using Paper Later I’ve voluntarily taken articles I could have read for free and paid to have them delivered to my house. I’ve also limited the number of articles I receive, taking it down from an almost infinite number of pages for free, to just 12 pages for £4.99.

Paper Later, and printed magazines in general, are David Carr’s grapes. They’re the things we’re still (just about) prepared to pay money for, because of the promise of their unique juiciness. Print is the oldest and still the most effective paywall, and while there are very good arguments for giving away a certain amount of content for free, publishers have to keep something special for their paying print readers.

Because there’s an obvious value implicit in paying for something. As Carr concludes, “The grapes were delicious, by the way, but I consumed them slowly and consciously, each one carrying not only lusciousness, but the knowledge that I had paid for them.”

The end bit
Thanks for reading this far! I should say that while I’ve loved the whole Paper Later experience, and I’ll definitely be returning to it, there are some obvious beta niggles that need fixing.

There are the problems highlighted in yesterday’s video of formidable spreads of text, and the accidental hoovering up of picture captions and other details into body copy. It also feels like there’s an opportunity to do more with the project, adding in a little of the serendipity that’s so often talked about as a strength of print. For example, what if some nice little bits of content from Little Printer could be dotted around the place, helping to break up those big pages of text and adding a little surprise without detracting from the editorial control of the reader / editor / publisher.

But I’m sure the clever people at Newspaper Club are already well on with the next phase of improvements for Paper Later, and that’s exactly what makes this project so exciting. This is its first iteration and it’s already excellent. I said it yesterday but it’s worth repeating – if you haven’t already given Paper Later a try, apply for your access today. You won’t regret it.

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