Once upon a time, it was good to work for magazines. Or so the story goes. I wouldn’t know firsthand. My career in that quaint publishing form known as the glossy periodical stretches back only long enough to have just barely missed out on the good stuff — the cultural cachet, the expense accounts, the holiday parties, the office booze cart that used to lubricate the editors at Time.
It has been this way for the entirety of my career — not enough enthusiasm or money, no sense as to which direction the ship of our ink-stained fate should be steered and morale as graffiti fodder for jokes on the walls of the office bathroom. Yet I still love making magazines, writing and editing stories, participating in the discussion on the wide flow of the culture. But feeling, at 41, like an entry in a remaindered edition of an encyclopedia no one publishes anymore is not where I wanted to find myself.
Even with this baseline of everyday badness, the last week or so has been really bad. The collapse of Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story and the public bloodletting at The New Republic have added new meaning to bad.
I’m going to put aside the comings and goings at The New Republic, in part because I can’t fathom what a vertically integrated digital media company might be — could be good! — and because I have no connection to the publication and the people who quit. I envy the editors so confident in their future and our industry’s that they can afford to resign. I’m more of the roll-me-out-in-a-wheelbarrow sort. I’ve always recognized that the Internet beast will come one day to devour me and my red pencils. I just never intended to make that easier for it.
As for Rolling Stone, I was, up until last year, the features editor at Men’s Journal, which is owned by the same parent company as Rolling Stone’s, Wenner Media. Will Dana, the veteran managing editor being raked over the coals of Twitter for his oversight of the UVA story, runs both publications. I feel for him. I learned a lot working under him, and I even liked him. Mostly, though, I’m just glad I wasn’t in a position to make the same mistakes.
A lot of the Rolling Stone discussion has focused on process: What did they know, what did they do, why haven’t the fact checkers been led into a dark alley and vigorously caned? There have been comparisons to the vetting processes at other publications, lectures on best practices, public explanations and revisions of the public explanations. Others have focused on investigating the magazine’s investigation. Still others have taken a wider view about the impact on rape claims. Ruminations have abounded. “Whither magazines?” think pieces. But I’ve spent more time thinking about what it means for me personally.
One of the good things about working at a magazine is that you get to feel good about what you do — in part because you get to feel that you are good at it. Magazines are institutions with long-practiced standards of excellence that issue a product as carefully crafted as a piece of fine art. We work hard on them, fully cognizant of the drawbacks of the profession and our looming irrelevance, yet secure in our merit and scornful of the practices of our online analogues. (“They don’t care about quality. It’s all junk chasing after clicks. We do things the Right Way.”) The main distinction print editors draw between themselves and their Internet peers and competitors is that we are better at what we collectively do than they are. Slim satisfaction, perhaps, but that was really all that was left for us.
The Rolling Stone episode stings because it calls this into question. Don’t get me wrong: It shouldn’t. Make your Rolling Stone jokes, if you must, but it too is assembled every two weeks via a process of heavy labor and deep attention to detail. They have smart and talented editors, believe me. Still, their failure has harmed us all. It saps at the last remaining wellspring that we editors have: that we stand for quality or, at least, the recognition that quality counts. And it still does. If it didn’t, the original article would not have caused such a commotion. Nor would its collapse have mattered. I’ve written long stories for some of the new online long-form venues, including Medium and BuzzFeed. I can attest that quality matters to them too. But I think they remain the exception rather than the rule. So the Rolling Stone episode saddens me. I feel its failure as my own.
I have spent the week going back and forth and round and round with the fact checkers of a national magazine for a story I’ve written. Editors and top editors and copy editors and the editor-in-chief have had their way with me, as they should. My work has been extensively scrutinized and obsessively challenged. These have been good days, spent in the company of committed folk all pulling in the same direction. I hope there will be many more days like them to come, but I suspect not. The events of the last several weeks signify nothing. They mark no turning points, no publishing Waterloo. Like age, they only sap a little more vitality from those who do this for a living. Soon enough, we will move on, to other publishing screw-ups, embarrassments and setbacks.
How do I know? It’s been that way my whole career.