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Straying from our trianglesStraying from our triangles

Straying from our triangles

My post should have acknowledged that some of the big boys of print aren't going down without a fight, either. When I say oversized I mean 9x11 format, 156-page colour saturated magazine bling. When I say sumptuous, I mean a book that begins with a spread opener Rolex advertisement and finishes with a back cover for Patek Philipe. And when I say style, culture, and travel, I mean the entire universe of subject matter that can be shoehorned into those very wide headings.

Peter Stockland
3 minute read

I blogged here recently about the way small magazines are challenging the pusillanimous acquiescence of mainstream media before the Internet onslaught.

My post should have acknowledged that some of the big boys of print aren't going down without a fight, either.

A prime example of that fighting spirit is the entry into the North American print market of a magazine called Intelligent Life, a sumptuous, oversized style, culture, and travel magazine published by, of all outfits, The Economist.

When I say oversized I mean 9x11 format, 156-page colour saturated magazine bling. When I say sumptuous, I mean a book that begins with a spread opener Rolex advertisement and finishes with a back cover for Patek Philipe. And when I say style, culture, and travel, I mean the entire universe of subject matter that can be shoehorned into those very wide headings.

The January/February issue that I picked up at an airport newsstand to read on a cross-country flight this week has a table of contents that covers everything from Julian Barnes visiting the house of Jean Sibelius in Finland to finding poetry on the iPad to the architecture of Thomas Heatherwick to a survey of literary festivals in India and advice on how to keep fit at age 82.

The magazine has been available outside North America since 2008 but until this past October was only available in the U.S. and Canada on iPad or by subscription. Starting in October, the Economist began market sampling by inserting 32-page supplements of Intelligent Life in its regular magazine.

As IL editor Tim de Lisle writes in his editor's letter, reaction to the sampling began with some readers feeling "sullied" and angry at its "culturally biased garbage," but has since improved substantially.

"Early responses were mainly hostile, later ones much more positive," de Lisle says.

That is itself positive, whether or not we care to read about fishing in Dalmatia or the enduring fashion mystery of Big Hair.

Clearly what The Economist is doing is throwing a very large, rich rock into the pond of North American print publications. It is betting that print, cries and whispers to the contrary, remains sustainable, indeed profitable. If Intelligent Life sinks like a stone, it won't matter whether that it was a good or bad magazine. It will signal only that The Economist, of all outfits, made a bad bet.

To switch the metaphor, a friend who is one of the most savvy print publishers I've ever known, recently told me with great confidence that the medium will get a "dead cat bounce" as people rebel against the deficiencies of e-reading.

"Print will get a bounce," he said. "The problem is, it will also be a dead cat," he said.

I genuinely hope that proves untrue and not out of sheer nostalgia for ink and paper. As writer Ian Leslie argues in an Intelligent Life column, the loss of print is as much about the diminishment of serendipity as it about pining for tactility.

Leslie points out that we mistakenly have come to think of serendipity as any happy coincidence. In fact, it means having the wisdom to recognize the discovery of something we weren't even looking for.

Its very organizing principles, Leslie says, make the internet efficient at the expense of offering up encounters we could not imagine were even possible.

He compares the effect to what happened to cities in the 19th century when the attempt to organize the metropolis for efficiency decimated the opportunity for discovery around every corner.

By mid-20th century, sociology had determined that even in a city such as Paris most people moved, and most lives were lived, in pretty rigid "triangles" bounding home, work or school, and a few outside interests. Most of us, Leslie points out, have come to use the internet as 1950s Parisians came to use the City of Light.

"We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer 'surf' the information superhighway as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we never stray from our virtual triangles."

Print, by its nature, is less like the urban triangle and more akin to what the sages of Sesame Street used to call "a wreck and a tangle" of expansive boulevards, inviting avenues and, yes, sometimes confusing cul de sacs that "wander like a tedious argument" in T.S. Eliot's immortal phrase.

I will leave it to readers' tastes to determine which of those categories the content of Intelligent Life most resembles. But as a publisher of a small magazine, newly launched (i.e. Convivium) I can only shout huzzah that some big boys of publishing are at least fighting back to save print from perdition.

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