What We Lose When Magazines Fade Away

The historian David A. Bell, who resigned as a contributing editor of The New Republic last month, considers the intellectual ramifications of the decline of dead-tree magazines:

In this new digital universe where words have broken free of their traditional covers — and reading so easily turns into skimming — arguments flow faster and fiercer than ever, but they dean20and20obamaare atomized, and hyper-accelerated. A group of authors may momentarily coalesce to argue a particular point — the way commentators from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Corey Robin came together to say “good riddance” to TNR. But then the molecules of argument break apart again in the constant flow. In this universe where unified magazines are dissolving, it is becoming far harder for a group of editors and writers to have the sort of durable influence that TNR acquired at moments in its past, notably in the 1980s. For all the excellent articles that the surviving weekly magazines still publish, their existence as distinct editorial projects jibes poorly with the way more and more of its readers actually read.

Worse, the structure of this new universe further reinforces the tendencies toward ideological polarization that began in America well before the age of social media, and that has led to what the sociologist Paul Starr calls the “ideological sorting out” of the major political parties, with conservatives flocking to the GOP and liberals to the Democrats. In the personalized info-feed that makes up more and more of my own daily reading, it has become rarer and rarer to encounter arguments that challenge me to think in a fundamentally different way about an important issue.