Sunday, November 8, 2009

The New Magazine: Blogazine or Magazog?

Why we're now calling TW a blogazine—and the ever-evolving world of first-person journalism. Do you think we've entered a new age for writers, or is it more of the same?

A few days ago, I thought I was particularly clever, dreaming up a new term for the hybrid blog-magazine that's now appearing all over the Web: magazog. That's it! I told myself, as I strode around the local reservoir, golden leaves fluttering down, the raw sticks of winter peeking through.

We professionals, I thought without a scrap of humility, will soon be working for online sites in which the writing is not just stream-of-consciousness crud. We won't just be generating free content, we'll be...zoggers??

All right. Forget magazog. I waded through another swirl of leaves. I played with the words in my head for a few more steps—b-zine (no, sounds like b-school), blozine (nosedrops? yuk), blogazine (yes! yes!)

Hubris is sometimes a wonderful thing. But there's nothing like a quick google to bring a dreamer down. When I got back from my walk, I found many entries for blogazine, a word that already has some currency.

I may have missed the blogazine blip, but what magazines are becoming has been much on my mind. It's a question I'll ask my students to research this spring in my magazine course. It's forcing me to revise my syllabus. After all, Malcolm Gladwell has a blog. Margaret Atwood has a blog. And what about everyone writing for free on Open Salon—with its tag of "You Make the Headlines—isn't that like a magazine?

Yet as radically as the industry has changed in the past year, some of the edgiest trends in magazine writing—the looser style, the subjectivity, the self-reflexive references—may not be so new at all.

One user at Urban Dictionary defines blogazine as an "online magazine/blog with thoughts and opinions that are researched unlike blogs." (Granted, if you check out the other links here, you'll notice lots of tongues in cheeks.) 

Readingaround Blogazine is described as "an online magazine of new work by independent writers and editors," and it actually has a very attractive, magaziney (but mercifully uncluttered) front "cover."

Phresh Mentality, a self-described "myspace photo album" that launched as an indie music blogazine this summer, calls itself  "a dynamic team focused on photography, design, and journalism."

"Journalism" and "research" often pop up in references to blogazines. The collaborative nature of these enterprises also distinguishes them from old-style blogs. And once you've got a list of contributors or "staff," you've entered magazine territory.

But except for the digital medium used, the shift from blogs to some form of online magazine isn't shockingly new. Blogs and blogazines are very much in line with the origin of print magazines. The term "magazine" (from the word for an ammunition cartridge or holder) was first used as a reference to the incendiary nature of opinion pieces.

The Gentleman's Magazine, first published in 1731, kicked off the use of "magazine" for a print journal with political commentary, cultural reviews, and a letters section that involves a back-and-forth with readers. The Preface to one volume notes that "whoever has perused the Gentleman's Magazines of this year" must be able to discern that:
"[W]e have a large number of ingenious and learned contributors, by whom many subjects, of the highest importance, are treated with accuracy, spirit and candour. Much the greater part of these contributors conceal themselves with such secrecy that we correspond only with them by the Magazine...."
The editor himself used a pseudonym—Sylvanus Urban—which would work just fine on Open Salon or other cyber sites where noms de plume are common. Political writers like Jonathan Swift and, most especially, Daniel Defoe would also have been right at home with today's blogs or blogazines. Defoe's Review so much resembled a blog that one academic project has set it up in that form for contemporary readers.

Then there's George Orwell, the patron saint of many feature-writing journalists, who had all the earmarks of an avid blogger. His given name was Eric Blair, but "George Orwell" allowed him to keep "the public from 'working magic' on him by knowing his true identity," notes Paul McHugh in a Washington Post travel piece about Orwell's island retreat on Jura.

(Side question: Would Orwell, ill with TB on that remote Scottish island and composing 1984, have written for free just to get his ideas out? Probably, but I'm not sure.)

Here's what I want to know: Has blogging changed more recent standards for journalistic magazine features? Are we getting more personal, more subjective? Is the first-person starting to trump?

This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's potentially a profound change. The distinction between "hard" and "soft" news seems increasingly outmoded to me. I'm not arguing that we abandon good reporting practices; more than ever, feature writers need to verify facts, cultivate diverse sources, and make clear to readers where the information comes from.

Yet features in which writers inject themselves to good effect, giving readers entré to how reporters sift through facts and come to conclusions, may get us closer to multi-faceted reality. That's certainly true for trend stories or other features that rely on anecdotes.

Neil Swidey's latest article in the Boston Globe Magazine, "Why an iPhone Could Actually Be Good for Your 3-Year-Old," is a great example. He takes a hot-button topic (I must admit my first response was "Are you nuts?!") and makes a convincing case for something counterintuitive. Yet he doesn't do so by pretending objectivity or journalistic omniscience:
"I say this as someone who doesn't even like the iPhone. I have never worshipped at the altar of Jobs, and have, in fact, always preferred the dowdy PC.... But I can see how quickly our youngest daughter has become a pro with the device, despite being just 4 years old and unable to spell anything more than her name. She belongs to a new generation."
Swidey not only provides plenty of counterpoints to his claim, he also clues readers in to why what they say matters. Swidey writes that "for a reality check, I went to see Dr. Michael Rich," who runs the Center on Media and Child Health at a Boston hospital. Rich, predictably, talks about why smart phones for toddlers are worrisome. But Swidey adds:
"[H]ere's what makes Rich's perspective so valuable. In a field where some children's advocates view all media as bad while industry-bought voices speak only gee-whiz-ese, Rich opts for nuance. He rejects the notion that parents try to seal off their child from all media...."
Most readers know journalists have biases and that we're not completely objective observers. Instead of one's perspective being masked, in personally inflected features it's out there for all to see.

Ironically, the rise of first-person journalism, fueled by blogging and social-networking, may be dragging magazines right back to their roots—to all those gentlemen writers talking with such "accuracy and candour." (Or at least back to Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion.) You can see it on Open Salon, where so many gentlepeople fling ideas around with gusto, and with a quality that matches or surpasses much of what appears in print today.

So do we need a new word for magazine—or blog? Perhaps the only reason to push for blogazine and the like is a professional one: respect.

On another walk around the reservoir, the golden leaves still falling, here's a comment I overheard: "I'm still getting together my blog thing. Do you have an e-mail? I'll send it to you."

This speaker is obviously worried her "blog thing" will get no respect; it's not the equivalent of saying, for instance, "my article in the NY Times Magazine." But she follows up fast with "your email" and "send it to you," revealing just how much finding readers means to writers these days.

Sometimes I think the whirl of blogs and e-zines is the equivalent of a million tumbling autumn leaves. But I like the notion of collaboration versus the top-down masthead of print magazines. If that's what makes a blogazine different and "dynamic," I'm for it. I like the spirit of adventure, the potential for many editors rather than just a few guarding the gate to publication.

Call it the New-Old Journalism. Or the Old-New Magazine. Think of Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson, a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. They would have been thrilled to spread their ideas from pole to pole. If asked to create a new kind of magazine, they'd be learning HTML and how to create podcasts in the pubs of London. They'd be way past worrying about a drop in print ad sales—though they'd also be figuring out how to make some money.

This piece originally appeared on Open Salon as an Editor's Pick.

Corrections: A small error appeared in the block quote from the Gentleman's Magazine (an incorrect "of"); Paul McHugh's article appeared in the Washington Post, not the New York Times. These errors were corrected January 8, 2010.


  1. Yeah. The money thing is something you allude to quite a lot in this article. Show me the money and I'll show you an online venue that is worth getting a new name. Until then, blog me, flog me, dog me. The world is the 21st century writer's oyster, but there's still no food on the table and my family's getting tired of macaroni and cheese (my homemade version anyway).

    Great writing here, Martha!

    I noted this on FaceBook earlier this morning. It's worth a look:

  2. Thanks for the article link, David. Do you think narrative is dying or that long-form writing can't thrive on blogs or blogazines or whatever we call these things? I'm not so sure, but we do need a way to present longer features in online venues.

    As for the money, it weighs on me, it really does.


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