July 18, 2007

The news that Crisis magazine will cease print publication September 1, to be replaced by a free online version, is sad—perhaps not in itself, but for what it represents.

I never thought much of Crisis as a whole (its Catholicism was always tainted with neoconservative politics), and it’s been a few years now since I’ve even seen a copy—and then only when a friend asked me to read an article that he found particularly appalling.  Still, this is not the way it should have ended.  Crisis has fallen victim to trends that are all-too-familiar to those of use running print publications: “Postage and printing costs continue to rise, while response rates to subscription offers decline” and specifically, “the 20 percent postage-rate hike we’ve been handed this month, thanks to the U.S. Postal Service.”

Crisis was lucky—some of us are dealing with even higher rate hikes, courtesy of the presidentially appointed Postal Board of Governors, which overruled the recommendation of the Postal Service for an across-the-board 11.7 percent rate hike.  Instead, the Board of Governors accepted wholesale a plan proposed by the single largest publisher in the United States—Time Warner.  Not surprisingly, mass-market publications with large circulations and a high percentage of ads received the lowest rate increases, while small-circulation publications with few paid ads received the highest.  (Those publications, by the way, are disproportionately religious and political.)

A cynic might suggest that Time Warner has a plan—to put the squeeze on niche publications, forcing them out of the print business altogether or setting up the conditions that will make a lowball buyout offer irresistible.  Whatever the reason for the Time Warner rate increase, the effect will be to decrease radically the diversity of print publications.

Some will take the route that Crisis took.  Others, less technologically savvy, will cease publication in any form.  And too many people will simply say, “So what?  We have the internet now.  And electronic copies can be archived forever.”

Yes, indeed, we do.  But don’t get too complacent about electronic copies.  Some of us have stacks of 9-inch disks, 5.25-inch disks, 3.5-inch disks, dead hard drives, and scratched CDs—massive quantities of data that we’ll never be able to recover.  Combine that with the fact that there are an almost infinite number of bits and bytes flying around out there in cyberspace that are likely to have no lasting historical significance—yet they have the same “published” status as those that do.

Assuming that the historian of a century from now can access all of that data, the massive inflation of “published” words brought on by the “digital revolution” will make it much harder to separate the wheat from the chaff.  As long as print publications survive, the historian’s task will be a little easier.  The mere fact of print, of course, does not guarantee that what’s in print is wheat—there’s already an overabundance of chaff on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.  But the effort of print publication, even in this day of desktop publishing, acts as a salutary filter, keeping out more bad than good.


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