Hardly a surprise

Predicting big changes for how we do our reading

Issue: "Supreme arrogance," July 8, 2000

If you are one of that fairly small group who can claim you've been a subscriber to WORLD magazine from its very first issue, and also of that very select group that can say as well, "And I've kept every single issue since the one with Warren Rudman and Phil Gramm on the cover"-then I can surmise that you are also beginning to have a little problem. Where do you store 600 old magazines?

I've always been a keeper of periodicals and clippings. Not quite as bad, mind you, as an elderly friend who clipped articles he liked out of the Encyclopedia Britannica at the nursing home where he lived. But pretty bad, nonetheless. I've got half a dozen fading copies of Life magazine and assorted newspapers from the week after John F. Kennedy was killed; for 37 years, I've thought those might be valuable some day. Now it's my hopes that are fading.

I ruminate about all this because I also find myself asking two very perplexing related questions: Will anybody at all be keeping old magazines a generation from now? Will printed magazines even exist a generation from now?

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Just five years ago, my answer would have been an unqualified "Of course!" So dominant has been the printed page in human society for the last 500 years that it has seemed unthinkable to me that anything could conceivably take its place. Radio, movies, TV, and even the Internet have, of course, over the last century challenged books, newspapers, and magazines. But you can argue just as easily that the electronic and film media have actually created vast new markets for print media. TV Guide, for example, has for several decades been the biggest circulation magazine published anywhere in the world, even though its business of the future is in on-screen programming guides and Web directories.

But now I'm prepared to admit-much sooner than I ever expected-that my defense of the durability of the print media is rapidly crumbling. My premise has always been that too many folks like the warmth, friendliness, and portability of a newspaper, magazine, or book. They like to grab a few headlines and lead paragraphs at the breakfast table, a quick joke from Reader's Digest in the bathroom, an editorial on the subway, and maybe a chapter from a novel once back at home in the backyard hammock. And don't you take two or three books or magazines with you when you head for the beach? To pick one up and put it down at will, with no booting up, no loading of programs, and no system errors-and maybe also to stuff it in your coat pocket or rip out an ad for just the car you'd been looking for-all this left us descendants of Johannes Gutenberg sitting pretty. Or so I've always thought.

But just suppose. Suppose that the desktop monsters that have already been reduced to three-pound laptops get trimmed again to the weight of a Rand McNally road atlas. Suppose they're no thicker than that atlas, and maybe no bigger than the 8H x 11 magazine you're reading right now. Suppose that your new handy model never had to be switched "on," but was always ready to read, to consult, to calculate, to compose, and to view. Only as you dropped into bed at night would you link your ultimate personal computer to a power source-and simultaneously download whatever variety of reading and information you tell it you want the following morning.

Then, presto! With no more fuss than you now exercise with your morning paper (indeed, with less fuss, for you won't even have to head for your front porch), your whole day's reading lies ready for you in the order you've asked for it. A chapter from the Old Testament (automatically cross-referenced, of course, to a news story about a new archeological development in the Middle East); today's reading from Tabletalk devotional magazine; correspondence from your relatives-and the missionaries you support; a special on wheel alignment from your neighborhood mechanic whose own computer has kept track of your negligence in that regard; scores from last night's ball games; and on and on. The point is that all this will come (and much sooner than you may think) in a small, pliable, friendly, and portable device almost certain to remind you more of a book than of an appliance.

WORLD magazine, God willing, will come to you that way too. Such a product may well cost you less than the current printed model, and will for sure reach you more quickly with each week's content-or might it be a daily instead of a weekly then? Reference to back issues, and full-color clippings from them, will be a cinch.


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