Sunday, June 29, 2008

 

The Trouble with the Magazines

If you’re an American amateur astronomer, you won’t have to ask what I am talking about when I say “the magazines.” You know I mean Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. These very special publications have not just served up information for our little community for a Real Long Time (over seven decades in the case of S&T and going on four for Astronomy); they’ve continually defined and redefined the nature of amateur astronomy as practiced in the good, ol’ U.S. of A. I might even go so far as to say that between the two of ‘em these rags practically invented amateur astronomy. That beingthe case, it’s sad to report both these storied publications seem to be in decline.

When it began a few years back, the changes were small and incremental--but steady. Cheaper paper. Fewer pages. No mailing wrappers. Not that the lack of a protective outer wrap or the customary plastic bag was a huge deal. I didn’t even mind S&T’s new, odd, semi-glossy stock too much when it came. Nor Astronomy’s still glossy but oh-so-thin pages. I wasn’t over-perturbed when Sky and Telescope abandoned the “perfect binding” they’d used for years to return to the earlier stapled paradigm. But when both magazines began to shrink, Sky and ‘Scope going from 130 pages or so (I ran across one that clocked in at 150) to around 100 and Astronomy from well over 100 to a very skinny 80-something, this old boy sat up and took notice, you betcha. And began to get a little scared.

Scared? Yep, and I ain’t exagerating neither. Back in The Day Astronomy and, particularly, Sky and Telescope were amateur astronomy for me. Sure, there was the little club me and my teenaged buddies got up, but most of what (little) we knew came from the holy pages of S&T. When new issue time got close, you’d find me camping out by the mailbox like Charlie Brown waiting for Valentines. Hell, to this day I remember what a fresh new issue of Sky and ‘Scope smelled like when I ripped open the big manila envelope it came in. So, yeah, I’m scared, scared of losing what I’ve loved for so long. I like and have always liked Astronomy too, and if S&T is more on my mind at the moment, maybe it’s because the changes there have been more visible and seem to be coming thick and fast.

“Thick and fast” is right. Especially since S&T’s buyout a couple of years ago by New Track Media, a “conglomerate,” whatever that is. Their first move? Sky and Telescope’s spin-off, Night Sky, a magazine I considered the best new astro-mag to appear since Hector was a pup (and not just because I contributed to it) was shut down. Then, familiar names began to disappear from the masthead. Steve O’Meara decamped to join the competition last year. Next, we heard Editor Rick Fienberg was leaving. Then, almost unbelievably, the other day the man many of us looked on as “Mr. Sky and Telescope,” Executive Editor Kelly Beatty, announced his position is being eliminated and that he is leaving too. That was a real shock for the freelancers who write for Skypub (excuse me, “New Track.”). Kelly was often the person we dealt with day-to-day and it’s hard to imagine S&T without him. Were all these changes necessary to keep the magazine afloat? I don’t know. What I do know is that losing all that talent and experience has got to hurt. Kelly, for example, was on the job for 34 years.

The changes at S&T have been more visible, but similar things seem to be going on at Kalmbach’s Astronomy, though, since I’ve never worked with/for them, I know less about the scene there. I have met Dave Eicher, and have long admired his work, but that is it. It’s apparent (to me) that Astronomy is also struggling. The addition of O’Meara’s column was a plus, and the magazine has other talent, too, including, especially, Phil Harrington. B-U-T… This now-thin magazine continues in the throes of the identity crisis that began with the previous Editor’s tenure. Is it a Discover type magazine for astronomy with some amateur astronomy content, or is it an amateur astronomy magazine with some Discover-style armchair astronomy material? This confusion seems reflected in the structure of the magazine. One issue some “amateur” columns are in the front, next they are in the back. Some issues have excellent product reviews (usually thanks to good buddy Phil); some issues have no reviews at all.

What’s the “why” for the decline of these titanic (in a small amateur astronomy way) periodicals? Looked at Time and Newsweek lately? They are hardly what they used to be either. One thing’s sure; the newsstand biggies have a much, much larger subscriber base and advertising revenue to fall back on than our favorite little niche publications. Niche publications, is it? Yep. That’s what they are. The astro-mags are small, very small, in the larger scheme of things. Kelly once told me he thought many of his subscribers would be positively shocked if they got a look at Sky and Telescope’s modest (pre-New Track) “office complex,” a couple of nice old houses and a modest 1960s commercial building. The general decline all magazines are experiencing is harder for Sky and Telescope and Astronomy to bear because of their comparatively minuscule size.

But why are magazines in trouble? There’s, unfortunately, not one reason, but a slew of reasons. The reality of the current economy is no doubt numero uno, however. Not only does everybody have less money to spend on "luxuries" like magazines, increased energy costs probably do more to hurt magazines than they do many other industries. When the cost of energy goes up, so do paper costs and delivery costs, the life’s blood of print pubs. But there is more to it than that: there’s the Internet.

In some ways, the growth of the Internet has affected astronomy magazines in a more dramatically visible way than it has other periodicals, though it’s hurt the biguns, too, especially the news-zines. Before the electronifiction of amateur astronomy, all we had was Sky and Telescope and Astronomy (well, there were two or three dusty astronomy books in the Possum Swamp Public Library) and the local club. Now? There a virtual astronomy club meeting/bull session/teach-in going on every hour of every day thanks to the Yahoogroups, Cloudy Nights, and Astromart. We don’t have to wait for the first of the month for the new magazine or the club meeting to get an amateur astronomy fix.

There’s a heck of a lot more to Internet astronomy than just discussion groups, though. Remember how you used to flip through each new S&T and drool over the ads before you even thought about reading any articles? Yeah, admit it: if you’re like yore ol' Unk, you enjoy looking at the scope advertisements almost as much (sometimes more) than you enjoy reading the editorial content. With every astronomy merchant who is anybody now having a huge website, where’s the need for a magazine subscription in order to look at new play-pretties?

And there’s yet more to draw the rank and file to the PC and away from the mags. Like equipment reviews. A-mart and CN have that purty much covered and do very well at it. Editorials? Look no farther than this here blog or dozens more like it. Observing articles? Ton’s of that on the ‘net. Some of it—like Adventures in Deep Space and Skyhound--is extremely well done, too. Astronomy news and gee-whiz articles? That stuff’s only a click on “nasa.gov” away. Why pay for it? Many boys and girls have decided they don’t have to and won’t, especially as subscription fees have rocketed.

So is that it? End of story. Curtains for the big-time astro-zines? Not necessarily. I think it’s at least possible both S&T and Astronomy can continue just as they are, limping a little bit, sure, but hanging in. Sky and Telescope’s new Editor, Bob Naeye, impressed me as a very capable sort when I met him a while back, and I think he will do an outstanding job for them. Astronomy? Probably can press on relying largely on impulse “airport newsstand” sales and subscriptions by a (possibly) shrinking audience of novice amateurs. But the feeling I have in my bones is that there is more trouble ahead for both periodicals unless they find a way to make a place for themselves on today’s amateur astronomy scene. What can they do? If you ask me (why would you do such a silly thing?), there are some possibilities for salvation, even at this late stage of the game:

Most of all? Forget ink and paper. Too expensive, and a surprising number of folks, especially younguns, now prefer reading on a PC, anyway. Make receiving an Adobe Acrobat file rather than a hardcopy at least an option. For a reduced rate, of course. Some of the codgers among us (I are one) won’t like that at first, but many will accept it, especially once they realize it’s possible to print-out articles or the whole blamed magazine when desired (you gotta have something to read in the loo, right?). Some of the semi-pro-zines, Amateur Astronomy Magazine, Astronomy Technology Today, The Strolling Astronomer, and AstroPhoto Insight are doing this with some success right now. Folks need an extra enticement to wean them from paper ‘n ink? It’s easy to revise and repost an Adobe file. Add a continually updated News section to each virtual issue. How about a list of the editors’ favorite (and clickable) Internet links? Maybe a “user contributions” section--not just for photos, but for readers’ articles and reviews and other stuff. The possibilities once you go to an inexpensive (relatively speaking) medium like Adobe Acrobat .pdfs are endless.

E-zine too radical? Then why not add value to print ‘n paper issues electronically? The last time Miss Dorothy and I were in the UK I wandered into Victoria Station’s WHSmith (bookstore/large newsstand). What struck me was that just about every single magazine on display was accompanied by a CD or DVD. An included disk would seem a natural for an astro-mag. The possibilities are even more exciting than those that come with a .pdf. Not only could the text of the magazine be on the disk, so could astronomy software programs, interviews, and image galleries. I derned shore guess those sweated-over reader astrophotos in the gallery sections will look much better on a monitor than on constantly coarsening paper stock.

The UK’s newest astro-rag, The Sky at Night, has included a CD with each issue since it cranked-up, and that may be one of the reasons it seems to be thriving. While not too much was made of the disk at first—a video of the latest Sky at Night TV program and a shareware astrosoft or two was about it--more creative things have been done with it of late. A recent CD, for example, included plans/videos to accompany the issue’s telescope making project. At this time, The Sky at Night’s disk is merely an adjunct to a full-sized print-zine, but nobody says you have to include a “real” magazine with a CD. In the past, several U.S. computer magazines have tried “paperless,” putting the whole issue on a CD. These disks were shrink-wrapped with a printed magazine-sized table of contents and sold on the rack just like normal. While nobody seems to have had continuing success with this format, there’s no reason it couldn’t go if done right. One thing is in the disk’s favor: it gives us Luddites something tangible for our money that we miss with a mere file download from a website.

What else? However it’s done, paper or no paper, the magazines need to play to their strengths. One of which used to be equipment reviews. When the astro-Internet first began to grow, folks were suspicious of the equipment reviews found there and continued to place more credence in what was printed in Sky and ‘Scope and Astronomy. That’s changed. An informal survey of mine (“Hey Bubba, what do you like?”) says many amateurs have decided the reviews found on the very professionally presented Cloudy Nights website, for example, are more reliable than what they read in the magazines. In fact, some people even prefer the “reviews” done by their fellow amateurs on sites like excelsis.com to what’s in the glossies.

That doesn’t have to be the last word, though. It wouldn’t take much to put the astro-rags at the top of the heap again vis-à-vis gear reviews. First of all, they’d need to do more reviews. At least three or four every issue instead of the usual 0 – 2. And strike a somewhat hard-hitting tone. I have never, ever believed that old canard that the magazines softball their reviews in order to avoid offending advertisers, but many of my brothers and sisters do think that. More in-depth would be good as well. Astronomy, in particular, has occasionally been guilty of “reviews” that read like advertising copy. What’s a good gear review? Take a look at the ones that appear in every single issue of Popular Photography. Speaking of Pop Photo, I think the astro-mags could learn a lot from the way this hoary magazine has changed and adapted in the face of the Internet and digital imaging. Like all mags, I'm sure it's not untroubled, but it seems to be surviving, at least, and its website is a model of what a hobby/tech/equipment magazine's website should be in this old boy's opinion.

What else? I reckon it’s time to go easy on the news. We don’t need stale news when it’s a click away on the Internet. Sky and Telescope has been moving in this direction for a while, but my guts say “go farther.” Unless it’s earth-shattering (“Large Hadron Collider Swallows Switzerland”), leave it out. While we’re at it, let’s talk about the Gee-whiz/astronomy fact/professional astronomy articles. There is a place for these but don’t let them dominate the whole gull-derned magazine. Sure, armchair/impulse/educator buyers are important, but do not forget that it is we, working amateur astronomers, who’ve supported you-all through thick and thin. Don’t make us feel ghettoized; sometimes we get tired of articles for/about us always going in the back of the rag.

Anything else need the heave-ho? Think about cutting back on the other stuff we don’t really need because we get it on the PC. When just about ever’body has a dozen planetarium programs on the hard drive, we don’t need the same old - same old every month: Saturn is in Gemini, Venus is the evening star…yadda, yadda, yadda. I suppose the monthly star chart should stay, and special event coverage—eclipses and such--but only just. In general terms, what I want from you is not a rote recitation of “what’s up this month.” I know what’s up this month. Hell’s bells, even Boudreaux down the street, who can hardly program his VCR, knows how to work Cartes du Ciel and bring up Heavens-above.com. Leave this stuff for your website if you think we need it from you. What I want is what Sue French and Steve O’Meara are doing. What I want is what’s up that’s SPECIAL and WHY.

Finally, as I mentioned above, what would be the cat’s meow would be if a way could be found to allow for more user contributions. I don’t mean professionally written articles, but user comments and images (including ones done by those of us who don't own 20-inch Ritchey-Chrétiens) and even little “informal” articles. A bunch of “Focal Points” every month. That’s the sort of thing that’s likely to make us folks think of Astronomy and Sky and Telescope as “our” magazines instead of “their” magazines, just as Cloudy Nights and Astromart are “our” websites.

Do I think suggestions like these (or better ones smarter folks can come up with) will save the magazines over the long run? Maybe. But I ain’t sure about that. It is possible the age of the magazine is passing. I hope not. Deep down inside there is still that 12 year-old anxiously awaiting yet another big, brown envelope.

Shameless Book Plug Department: Quite a few of you have been kind enough to ask about the status of my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using the New CATs. It’s moving along smartly and is due out in December. Read all about it HERE.

Comments:
Well, golly gee there, Unk! There I was, all happy as a clam and then I read your blog. Now, I think I'm going to shoot myself. 

I'm kidding there, but I think you're painting an overly pessimistic picture. Yes, the magazines are evolving, which is to be expected given all of the outside influences you cite (very complete list, BTW). But that's fine. Each magazine's web site has some great content not in the magazine itself. For instance, I always contribute an "on-line extra" with each column (and thank you for singling me out as a *good* guy) that's accessible to subscribers via the Astronomy.com web site. I think it's important to do this sort of thing, since it enhances the print column by letting me talk about different topics, and vice versa. For instance, in the August on-line extra stuff, I discuss binocular prisms, something that newbies should find useful. Personally, I think ALL columnists at BOTH magazine should be REQUIRED to do this every month.

Of course, you and I have long been advocates that authors should not be prissy, put-offish folk, but rather should be accessible by readers directly. Our respective web sites illustrate that nicely. But name one other author who does this on a regular basis? Yes, some have stale, dusty web sites that are long overdue to a revamping, but by and large, I don't know anyone else who publishes their contact info in their books like we do (I take that back, Bob Thompson certainly does…okay, so 3 of us).

Of course, Astronomy also includes direct contact info for specific editors/columnists. I get e-mails from readers all the time, which is great. We need more of that IMHO.

Anyway, my $0.02. Hey, when my name is mentioned, I have to chime in!

Peace, my brother in the stars…
 
I too bemoan the demise of the magazines. I suggested to Astronomy years ago to go to PDF format.

But they may be concerned about revenue. A downloaded PDF can be shared with others for free easily, which would further erode their profits.
 
There is another new magazine in the UK - Practical Astronomer. Aimed squarely at amateur imagers/observers, it appears to be largely funded by subscription rather than advertisement.

http://www.practicalastronomer.com/
 
Uncle Rod, I agree and will up you one! Did you see the waste of pages in the newest S&T! Caesars Invasion of Britain! This is as bad as the one where we are all made of star stuff! I want astronomy not filler! Why not more tech-articles like Astrophoto Insight? All I can do is shake my head with disgust! I suggest you lead a write in campaign to S&T to change their ways ASAP!
 
There is also the American magazine Astronomy Technology Today, which keeps cost down by printing on cheap paper. Since there is no astroimaging to print, it does not matter as it is a technology oriented magazine.

Magazines may go, but I think books will survive. I sill like to turn pages, and a computer is too heavy to lay on your stomach to read in bed....
 
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