Is it too much to ask that every media story by a media writer about other media either going out of business or drastically “downsizing” at least affix the 1959 Johnny Cash lyric, “I don’t like it but I guess things happen that way” in the sub-hed? Last week nostalgists took to social media to describe their sorrow at Sport Illustrated (founded in 1954 and once had a weekly three million circulation) biting the dust, and posting favorite covers from over the years. In reality SI hasn’t mattered for years—like other “iconic” magazines such as Time, The Economist, Newsweek, The New Republic, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone—as the market for print newspapers and magazines has shrunk, just as the number of onetime subscribers continues to winnow and internet competitors, especially those covering sports, feasted on the long-festering carcass known as Sports Illustrated.
Sites like X/Twitter are now, in part, a place for obituaries, and the “conversation” about, say, a movie star, pop musician or politician’s demise lasts for a couple of days, tops. That makes sense, although I’m still taken aback when a celebrity’s passing at 95 causes someone to write “Oh, no!” upon the news. Maybe that’s not charitable, but even when someone as estimable as Charlie Watts, the cool and dapper Rolling Stones drummer, died at 80 in 2021, it didn’t shock me, even though I loved the Stones as a youth. I still often play Between the Buttons, Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile, and that’s an ongoing tribute for Charlie and eventually Mick and Keith. It is creepy, as an older man, to see “before and after” pictures of the luminaries of my youth, but I’d guess that’s common for those of us who hope our own lives go into extra innings (with the mind still sharp!)
I let my SI subscription lapse in 2008—although we still have an October 1, 2007 cover thumbtacked on a bulletin board featuring the menacing Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, the year when Boston (long before ownership decided to be cheapskates and emulate the 2019 Baltimore Orioles) romped to a World Series championship. While not a devoted reader—at one time I had over 60 subs to magazines and newspapers—the baseball writing was often top-rate (just like when The New York Times not only had a sports section, but also the country’s best) and while I didn’t wait for the mailman to deliver it, like Rolling Stone and National Lampoon when I was a teenager, I always cracked it, unlike the pre-Tina Brown New Yorker, copies of which, as was common, were stacked up for a slow day. I’m not embarrassed to admit that very occasionally I read Elizabeth Drew’s terribly dated “Letter From Washington.”
Something I never understood was the hype over SI’s annual swimsuit issue, the magazine’s best-seller every year, which caused talk and hubba-hubbas among guys at my workplaces and friends at bars. Perhaps they thought it was a “legitimate” way to check out pretty girls, but it’s not as if Playboy hadn’t attained respectability in the print world just six or seven years after Hugh Hefner launched it in 1953. Penthouse, which at its height had an enormous circulation, was a little more “dirty,” and I did get a little red-faced at the newsstand buying Al Goldstein’s “second-level iconic” Screw, a tabloid weekly—founded in 1968, with an initial investment of $350!—that was no-holds-barred rude, but also featured excellent illustrators, many of whom contributed to my weekly New York Press in the 1990s.
I can’t stand the writing of New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, but after gagging at the opening of his Jan. 21st column about the disappearance of media, he made a few good points, including a veiled (I think!) shot at the Times. First, the rough stuff: “I’m gutted to see Conde Nast folding the online magazine Pitchfork into GQ… If you look at the first screen of my iPhone, below the New York Times app and to the left of the Notes app, I keep a tile that’s just a direct link to Pitchfork’s page of music reviews. It’s one of the few corners of the internet I still love, no matter how often I find myself in disagreement. Disagreeing is part of the delight! The writing is beautiful, the reviewers encyclopedic, the point of view bracing.”
As is said, Nerd Alert! I never cared much for Pitchfork, found the writing too pretentious, but my kids, years ago, were devoted readers. They no longer are.
After a perfunctory list of failing newspapers and magazines, Klein says the Times is an exception (he’s correct; the company’s website is a marvel). He writes: “There is still opportunity at the top. [The Times] faces real headwinds—print subscription revenues are dropping here—but access to a global audience has opened new vistas of growth… [A] global market creates a Winner-Takes-More dynamic… The more subscribers that market leader gets, the more money and reach it has to attract the best staff and expand its offerings. The more talent it then hires and products it offers (Cooking! Games! Product reviews!) the better of a deal it is, which makes it that much more compelling a bundle, and the flywheel keeps going.”
Twelve or so years ago, I was fairly certain the Times would face a hostile takeover bid—maybe Mark Zuckerberg—with an outrageous premium that non-voting shareholders of the Times Co. would accept, and threaten to sue if it wasn’t. As it happened, the Times, as Klein notes, created an indomitable digital engine that ensures its profitability for at least the foreseeable future.
Klein returns to his usual tone-deafness when he writes, “[It’s] easier than ever to support yourself as an independent author.” Klein, through hard work, obsequiousness and cunning, did just that, but the number of “flywheel” independent authors is far outstripped by those who’re at a dead-end.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023