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A bundle of ideas
On what might be coming next to inboxes everywhere: Weekly newsmagazines, all over again
No one of sound mind or serious disposition ought to be venturing any high-confidence forecasts about the media economics of the years to come. There are just too many things changing in culture, technology, politics, consumer behavior, and finance that influence how the media will work for any short-range forecasts to bear out.
■ However, there are certain climatological-scale forces at play that do make it clear that conditions are primed for certain things to occur if the right participants were to step forward and take action. One of those is for some of the more talented and recognizable writers of the day to band together in producing what would be, in effect, contemporary versions of the old weekly news magazines. (Yes, Time still publishes a print edition and versions of Newsweek and US News and World Report are still around, but their collective influence is a mere shadow of what it once was.)
■ The number of writers who have departed their old homes with familiar legacy publications in order to strike out on their own is far from trivial: Andrew Sullivan left "New York" magazine to launch a $5-a-month subscription newsletter. Eric Zorn took a buyout from the Chicago Tribune to do the same $5-a-month newsletter gig. Bari Weiss's post-New York Times job is indeed another $5-a-month personal column. The list is very long, it is growing, and indeed there are a great many high-quality newsletters going out.
■ At some point, it seems likely that some of these individual producers will decide that it makes more sense to rotate among themselves and to share the burden of keeping up with the outputs demanded by the audience by bundling their products together. Every writer seeks an audience, and banding together could allow writers to increase their reach (and make more money). Much the same as webrings and blog carnivals each had their turns in the sun, so it seems inevitable that a world of individual newsletters will also seek mutual promotion and a touch of solidarity.
■ From the consumer's standpoint, there are so many individual subscription offerings now available for people to support newsletters and Substacks and Patreon ventures that it's tempting to fling cash in all directions. $5 a month doesn't sound like much -- until one realizes that it only takes about three of them to equal cost of a standard subscription to The Economist (which itself boils over with high-quality writing each week).
■ Readers like to support good writers, but economies of scale still matter. Just as the cost of many "unbundled" digital subscriptions can erase the gains from "cord-cutting", so can the unbundling of lots of writing from shared outlets.
■ But even more than that, the times seem to cry out for institutional voices. Aside from The Economist and The Atlantic, it's hard to find many periodical publications that strive to maintain a meaningful editorial voice. With so many people expressing opinions on convenient topics like politics and pop culture, we run the risk of being over-subscribed to those two and under-informed about a much larger number.
■ The real vacuum is for outlets that recognize commonality of interest without commonality of ideology. It's easy to find outlets that wear their allegiances on their sleeves. It's virtually impossible to find those that look to cater to the whole range of interests (across the full spectrum of life) held by people who share certain common curiosities without presuming their conclusions.
■ The idea of a true mass-market general-interest magazine may be hard to sustain anymore, but it's not impossible to imagine an unsatisfied demand for periodicals that match a weekly cadence with an attempt to offer an answer to the question "What, really, should I know about the world?", with some recognizable worldview behind it -- but one that looks beyond a merely partisan lens. There are, after all, only so many individual subscriptions an inbox can take.