Someone is going to have to bail us out. Preferably a lot of someones. Or we are not going to make it.
Let me invite you to look in on a typical scene, which could be picked from any one of dozens of meetings I’ve sought out in recent months, sitting across a table in an office or coffee shop from a new acquaintance I’m hoping can help with Pioneer. Inevitably, one of the first questions they ask me about the project is “why not just do it online?” The warm but somewhat-incredulous tone of the question suggests it is meant as a sympathetic nudge, the sort of tone you might take with a well-intentioned but overeager teenager who tells you she is thinking of foregoing college in favor of a cross-country bicycle tour to raise awareness about climate change.
This exchange is usually followed by a moment when my interlocutor, who has generously set aside time to hear my pitch, refers to the project as “ambitious,” a characterization to which I readily assent, though it is really just a nice way of saying we are in way over our heads.
These conversations stem from my decision, along with a team of talented local students and professionals, to a launch a monthly magazine emphasizing in-depth reporting and analysis of area arts and politics. Our first issue will be on newsstands in November. Four-color process ink, seventy-pound gloss paper, cut, folded, stapled, packaged, delivered.
Your skepticism is understandable, and forgiven. Long-established and well-respected publications are struggling with shrinking advertising revenues and readership. It might seem an inopportune moment for upstart Pioneer magazine to arrive in an already-bloodied field that has been winnowed to a few hardy survivors. We’re experimenting with a 15th-century technology at a time when the old pros have circled the wagons and are charting an escape to the still-unsettled frontier of digital journalism. Anyone who knows anything about it knows that print is as dead as a door-nail.
It feels appropriate to borrow a phrase from Dickens, whose work popularized the notion that serious literature could be serialized in newspapers and magazines for mass consumption and maximum cultural impact. Luminary scholars from Marshall McLuhan and Elizabeth Eisenstein to Benedict Anderson and Sidney Tarrow have argued for the central role of the printing press in shaping modern Western culture, and giving birth to modern liberal democracy. We’ve all learned how Benjamin Franklin worked as a printer, and how pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis helped stoke the Revolution. In a letter to John Jay, Thomas Jefferson expressed a sentiment common among America’s founders, writing that “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The American idea, at least as it was originally conceived, could only survive in a society in which knowledge and opinion were widely shared, discussed and debated, in a forum where the barriers to access and participation were as low as possible. Print was the technology that made such a democratic conversation possible.
In recent decades, many independent ‘zines and newspapers have come and gone in the Pioneer Valley, some of them of the highest quality. The gloomy financial outlook for print publishing has led industry insiders to the conclusion that the future of community journalism lies online. “You eliminate the costs that have nothing to do with content,” said Daniel Okrent, former editor of the award-winning New England Monthly, which published in and around Northampton from 1984 – 1990. “Books, magazines and newspapers are all about the words and the images and the ideas. All the other stuff is an impediment. If I can distribute something all over the world instantly by pressing a button, and there’s no cost in that distribution, I’m doing a huge favor for readers in making something available.”
At Pioneer we aim to challenge both the economic and audience preference forecasting. We think it’s important to come to our readers in the public places they frequent, rather than forcing them to seek us out, buried somewhere in the long tail and fleeting memory of hyperspace. We think the visibility and physicality of print help embed a publication in the life of a community.
People read differently online than they do in print. We don’t see the future as an “either-or” choice, and instead think we must take a “both-and” approach to Pioneer‘s online presence, print version and our other interventions in the community. Web-based media often have difficulty holding our attention for more than a few minutes, and they don’t encourage readers to pause and think before clicking through to the next link. We’re betting that there are still people in the Valley who want to read the kinds of in-depth, challenging and creative storytelling that are more easily-captured in a print format.
We are not looking for enormous amounts of money, but we do need substantial community buy-in of another sort. The Pioneer Valley boasts an unusual density of talent, brains, creativity and political engagement given its small size in comparison to other cultural centers. This wealth of human resources gives us confidence a magazine like Pioneer can work here. But it only works if we can convince the people of the Valley to make it their own, and to actively invest in its growth. Throw us a few bucks on Kickstarter. Share the magazine with a friend. Contact our editorial board about writing an article, shooting a photo, designing, illustrating, or contributing artwork. Send us an idea for a story. Talk back in any of the numerous forums we have planned for reader input. We don’t envision this magazine building an audience so much as fostering a community, and that has to be a collaborative activity, where everyone involved feels they have a stake in the project’s success.
I’ve found over the past year that starting a local magazine is a long process of getting comfortable with the feeling of being in something over your head. Eventually I realized that the goal wasn’t to break through the surface, but to become immersed in my subject, to let it surround me and attempt to pick up its rhythms and flows. The vital question for our fledgling magazine is not whether our small staff has the ingenuity to perform a publishing miracle, but how many of our neighbors share our sense of the value that accessible and provocative print media can hold for a community, and how many of them are willing to join in the conversation.
Photos by Hannah Cohen, Captions Top to Bottom:
Lynn Peterfreund discusses the local art scene at her Amherst studio.
A patron reads at Cushman Market & Cafe in Amherst.