Love letter to the mag world: Despite closures, show goes on

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Editors and Writers

c/o American Society of Magazine Editors

Dear Wordsmiths,

I read this morning that Brill's Content folded. This is a shame because, in its new quarterly format, it was hitting just the right notes. Its most recent issue contained engaging reports on Jamie Kellner's occupation of CNN, former White House aide Sidney Blumenthal's libel battle against Matt Drudge, Sen. Bob Kerrey's Vietnam saga-cover-to-cover, a compendium of intelligent entertainment, just what a magazine should be.

Of course, you're all focusing less on this loss than on a more pressing question: Am I next? George, Working Woman, The Industry Standard, even Mademoiselle-Mademoiselle, where Sylvia Plath first published!-are gone. In this most dismal of seasons, editors and writers are feeling fragile. "Something fundamental has changed, a shrinking of possibility and ambition, that may be permanent," Michael Caruso, the founding editor of the recently shuttered Maximum Golf, told The New York Times.

Allow me to respond with a love letter to you and your medium.

This act doesn't come naturally to me. Like you, I am a professional cynic. I have had my precious words torn apart by errant editors; I have also, as an editor, done butchery upon others' prose. But I've never lost sight of one curious fact: Despite our dismay and anger, we continue to love magazines.

How strange. Magazines' importance to the economy pales compared with newspapers. Their cultural impact is a shadow of TV's. Yet in New York, "the media" is magazines-the subject that fills the business pages and downtown chatter. In the hinterlands, glamour is magazines, from the intellectual stew of The New Yorker to the vibrancy of Time. I know successful screenwriters in Hollywood concerned more with the breakfast habits of Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter than with Jerry Bruckheimer's next production, and thriving business executives in Manhattan who follow Esquire writer Tom Junod's stories more closely than Roger Clemens' ERA. What is it that lures boys and girls off the bus into fact-checking jobs and, in turn, attracts readers to the worlds we create? Let me provide three halting steps toward an answer.

Magazines reveal the beauty of the semi-permanent. For their dailyness, newspapers have long been derided as fishwrap. TV exists relentlessly in the pixilated present. But living on the stands, in your hands, for a week, a month, even a quarter, magazines can string small truths together into strands of understanding that reach more people more of the time than all but the most insistent books. For writers (and the support structure underneath them) this is more deeply satisfying than civilians can possibly imagine. Readers, it turns out, love it, too.

Magazines are collaborative enterprises. Most editors, writers and graphic designers (you can tell by looking) did not play sports in high school. Magazines are a chance to express the desire for teaming that is part of the American character. Newspapers are command-and-control enterprises; even the few luminaries allowed freedom of expression must subsume themselves within a mechanism run from the top. TV operates via an oppressive star system. Periodicals, by contrast, are more akin to those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies, where a few kids can come together and put on a show in a barn. The barn may be a loft on lower Broadway, and the kids may have gray hair. But in the balance between individual achievement and team effort, magazines are journalism's summer stock and Broadway rolled into one.

Finally, magazines allow you to be a romantic egoist. As an editor, you experience moments when you feel like a diamond cutter, shaping and honing a writer's prose until it's a perfect jewel, shining in the marketplace of ideas-a task for which credit is rarely granted publicly. As a scribe, you get the glory-always knowing you stand on the shoulders of the giants who gave you the idea, or made it relevant to an audience, or simply crafted it expertly, as Alice K. Turner, Priscilla Grant, Jerry Goodman, Victor Navasky and dozens of others did for me.

For these reasons-and probably a dozen more-magazine people always transcend the moment. It was only one recession ago that Seven Days folded-but its legacy lives on in the score of periodicals run by its refugees. Once this recession passes, it's a safe bet Michael Caruso will find himself at a monthly. OK, maybe a weekly.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

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