Monday, March 15, 2010

The narrative princess and the online ogre

Part two: The perfect match

The following articles represent a series of reflections on the process of starting a music magazine. (Read the rest here)

Read part one
Read part three

A couple of weeks ago, in my first post from this series, I decided I was going to tell the long story. Because the long story is the only way one can justify the story. I mean, what’s the point of telling if it's short?

And then, a few days ago, while I was browsing my feeds and reading, as I usually do, the same 10-15 blogs out of the hundreds that I’ve subscribed to, I realized one thing: telling it is one thing, but reading it is another. Am I reading the long story? I am. Right next to my laptop lies Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train. I read long stories in newspapers and magazines.

And yet, when it comes to the internet, I try my best to avoid time consuming articles. Sometimes it's because I’m usually looking for something very specific, but more often because I just don’t have the time and patience to follow someone’s train of thought for more that 500 words, while I'm staring at a screen (I'm pretty sure half of you have stopped reading by now, after scrolling to the bottom of the text just to see how long it is). When I do, there are two reasons for it:

1. It’s written by someone I admire, appreciate, someone who usually writes great stories.

2. The article glues me to the screen from the first paragraph - regardless of whether I’m interested in the topic or not.

And no, I don’t read long articles on the topics that I am interested in just for the sake of the information, if they’re poorly written. And by good writing I don’t mean decent grammar and spelling.

So what would, in my case, attract readers to the stories - even those like me, who are willing to give any new publication a chance? The fact that they know and admire the writer? Highly unlikely. The quality of the content? Perhaps. But let's say I were to rely solely on that and on the idea that there is an audience that enjoys reading long stories online, but that the only thing driving them to it is that they relate to those stories somehow. I feel that I'd be walking on eggshells.

But what gives people the patience to read magazines and newspapers, but when it comes to hitting the `page 2` button, they just quit?

They say reading online materials was, at least at the beginning, slower than reading prints. Nowadays, this problem seems to have solved itself, as the human brain got used to the screen. But the truth is that it’s hard to talk about actual reading when it comes to online media. It's common knowledge that on the internet people just scan for ideas, get what they came for and quickly move on. This is the so called “horizontal information seeking”, something that hardly resembles reading at all and that, in time, seems to have diminished our ability to not get easily distracted, to focus on one thing and see it through.

Nonetheless, this is the only way that we can face the tremendous amount of information that we have to process every day. It's like a daily mental dinner party - we can only survive it by eating a little bit of everything. And let's face it - sometimes, it makes life easier.

Also, it's something that you just can’t do that in print - read a page or two of The Jungle Book, then pick up a book about bears, and then one about turning fur into coats - all in a few minutes.

Online, you have linking and videos and a ton of other stuff to play with. And it’s the hypertext that makes the difference - it's why you spend hours in front of your computer doing absolutely nothing but jumping from one page to the other and opening twenty tabs that you’re never going to read, but that you will restore every time the browser crashes. It's why you're bookmarking everything even remotely interesting - hoping that one Sunday morning you’ll have the time to take a look in your Delicious account - and why you quit watching the evening news.

It's why I only read 15 or 20 blogs, aside from the occasional newspapers, promise myself that one day I will clean the hell out of that reader, but somehow I know I never will.

And with that in my head, I realized that the only way you can use the advantages of both worlds is by taking the best of both and put it in a format that would do injustice to neither.

A few weeks ago, someone gave me the idea of a zine. It seemed funny at the time. Later on, reading about McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and the way he turned the publication into a celebration of print and of the value of paper as an independent object - more than just support for letters - made me understand that the idea was in fact quite good. A zine means minimum costs, the ability to produce long stories and actually get people to read them, whereas the online version could satisfy the readers' need for hypertext and intellectual bunny hopping. It's the perfect match for any stories on underground music. Also, it could broaden my target audience because I wouldn’t be trying to squeeze a cube into a round hole.

And I know that the concept of a zine brings everyone Bikini Kill flashbacks - it had the same effect on me - but let's put it this way: everyone agrees that good old fashioned long form journalism sits best next to its old buddy that's print press.

That doesn't mean I'm prepared to lay down my weapons and stop exploring the possibility of making long form, quality content work online. However, for this particular project, I think this combination is the answer. How it will be implemented, and what challenges I will face in doing it, in the next post.

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