Letter from the Editor

In Praise of Print

Where traditional magazines are better than the web.

  • This letter appeared in the November/December 2006 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • November 1, 2006

This month, we introduce a new section of the magazine. It’s not one that would work well on our website. Had I asked you, our readers, if you wanted such a section, you likely would have said No.

Every issue, we will publish an essay, memoir, or short fiction. They will shine some indirect light upon emerging technologies, our ordinary subject matter. But they represent a departure for us; our longer features have been conventional investigative or explanatory articles.

The first of these essays, “A Failure of Intelligence” is an account by the renowned theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson of his time in the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, during the Second World War. He describes the ingenious mathematical techniques he devised to evaluate the technologies employed by British bombers of the era. (To understand why Dyson thinks his story is relevant today, read his contributor’s note on page 4 of the print issue.)

This story is part of our November/December 2006 Issue
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I would never have commissioned such a piece for technologyreview.com. For a start, the essay is very long, and almost no one reads long stories on a computer, or even prints them from a Web page. Secondly, it is only slyly topical, and the Internet is mostly unforgiving of stories that are not bluntly of the moment. Finally, it is not obviously useful, and search engines and hyperlinks promote stories that answer people’s questions and gratify their preoccupations.

Multimedia

In short, the Internet is a very good medium for economically expressed, timely stories. More, the Web is unapologetically responsive to the market. Online, the posture of editors before readers is slavish: we listen to your demands, or else we (more tangibly, our “audience traffic”) are punished.

Yet editors can do more than give readers what they say they want; they can also offer up stories that surprise and delight. In print, editors can be purveyors of serendipity. Such a function may not be wanted in the yawping, demotic marketplace of the Internet. It can seem unacceptably elitist to those who are skeptical about the intelligence, expertise, impartiality, and good sense of what the blogosphere calls the “mainstream media.” But there are still many readers who will pay for that old-fashioned virtue, nicety of editorial selection.

A print subscription is a contract, in which the reader trusts the editor to deliver a type of journalism in every issue. A magazine reader does not “search for content” but arrives, like a punter at a favorite bar, pleasurably anticipating a familiar experience. Yet because a magazine is a discrete package, a reader will welcome the odd, novel addition to the usual fare, provided it is aligned with the magazine’s editorial mission and (for a publication like Technology Review, at any rate) is knowledgeable, well written, intelligent, and civilized.

When I became the publisher of Technology Review, I explained that we were reducing the frequency of our magazine to six times a year and increasing the number of stories we published online (see “From the Editor,” December 2005/January 2006). Many of you thought I was panting to abandon print. It wasn’t true. I love magazines. I think modern publishing companies must offer their readers and advertisers a variety of media; but there are some things that magazines do best.

Write and tell me what you think of Freeman Dyson’s essay at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com

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