Last year I had a subscription to Baseball Digest. Supporting a print baseball magazine felt like a good thing to do. At the same time, though, it highlighted the very well-publicized shortcomings of the printed page in a web-based media environment. Baseball Digest describes itself as “the oldest and only baseball magazine in the country.” Unfortunately, it feels that old. It’s not a glossy, the pages are a few steps above newspaper grade and printed completely in black and white and in small format, something in the range of 6 inches by 8.
The word “digest” is defined by the fast dictionary as “a periodical that summarizes the news.” It is hard to come up with a more obsolete tool in the media and information toolbox if you are a baseball fan or even a regular citizen. And the association with octoganerian favorite Reader’s Digest does not help at all (though RD has a far more impressive web presence than BD). The first problem is that “a periodical that summarizes the news” already describes the entire Internet. Hordes of bloggers post links and summaries about the news of the day, from Drudge on down, to say nothing of the baseball second-person link pages like MLB Trade Rumors. When many volunteers scour the web by the minute and post the results at the same pace, a “digest” sounds like it should be next to the Boston News-Letter and the Columbus Citizen-Journal in the index of dusty, deceased periodicals.
There is already a mad chorus of outlets chronicling the decline of the print magazine industry (try this one for a real picker-upper). I didn’t intend to add my voice to that chorus, but one must deal with the times that one lives in. And frankly I wanted to enjoy Baseball Digest as a less frenetic alternative to the particular breed of fast-moving baseball news that I also enjoy (but that I have a tendency to find addictive). There’s a long tradition of long-form baseball writing that transcends the minute-by-minute nature of online baseball coverage, and with that an opportunity to push a long-form baseball magazine. In the end, Baseball Digest didn’t put together the well-reported, nuanced, complicated stories that I wanted to read.
But what was it about Baseball Digest that I would change? I asked myself what a baseball print magazine would need do to satisfy my own intellectual and baseball-related cravings. Here are a few of my ideas, most of them obvious. Also, this isn’t a direct poop on Baseball Digest. There is plenty there for a certain demographic of baseball fan that isn’t me. For fans who are nuts about history, I’d go so far as to recommend it. So with that, here is my poorly informed consultation session for that burgeoning baseball mag looking to tap into the millions of fans, and at absolutely no charge.
A printed baseball magazine should:
– hire really good writers, obviously. Print media more and more needs skilled practitioners who can elevate the form rather than emulate opposing media. There are enough bullet points and blurbs online to fill a trillion print magazines. Do not add to that clutter with more peanut-sized posts. Write it long and well.
– provide long-form content that doesn’t read well on the web. One web usability article on Doc Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox site summarizes it thusly: “On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.” At a 20% clip, Hemingway would read like a classified ad. There is little to no room for thoughtful expostulation (present blog excepted, hopefully). Magazines still have our culture’s attention enough to provide the space for well-crafted, original reporting and essay-writing. For an example, see the New Yorker, whose weekly editions challenge any publication for high-quality, original content that thrives in the print medium.
– make sure that its content is high-quality and original. The web is a haven of commentary. Opinions are logged in bulk. What there is always room for, and especially in regards to baseball and to print, is original reporting and storytelling. If I am to pay four or five dollars for the right to read a magazine, I want to read stories that I wouldn’t encounter anywhere else. I don’t want a summary of the first half standings that I can find on Yahoo or ESPN or dozens of other outlets. I want to read about a AA barn-burner with a portrait of Sadaharu Oh tattooed on his back and a 56-mile-per-hour curveball; I want to read the first person account of the player who is doing something nobody has ever done before (Ichiro?); I want to read about baseball style (Ichiro?). The great magazine writers can work a subject over like Manny Pacquiao and provide a sense of satisfaction that isn’t readily available online.
– understand the timeline of the web. In other words, as I noted in the previous bullet point, don’t challenge the web on its own turf. Produce content that exists out beyond the news ticker and the refresh button.
– excel in visual design and sensory experience. As I mentioned earlier, Baseball Digest leaves much to be desired in terms of “look and feel.” A print magazine should embrace itself as a medium and capitalize on what the web cannot provide. You can’t touch the Internet. You can’t turn it over in your hand, or tear out a page and tack it to the wall (without a sweet printer, anyway). A great baseball magazine should be glossy or at least vibrant as hell, with a mix of action shots and portraiture and original photography. Try social photography (despite the recent troubles of a social photography mag JPG).
– learn from ESPN the magazine, the good and the bad. I’ve always admired ESPN the mag from a distance. The visual design is remarkable and an epic effort, and the reporting is original and fan-oriented. I fell off of it some time ago, though, because I always felt like I was an unwitting spectator to a parade of inside jokes and obscure references. A magazine needs to build a community, sure, but individual articles should stand on their own. I’ve never been a big fan of gimmicky short sections with up and down arrows and value judgements based on color coding. So, the good: attention to design and print-centric presence, and an obvious zeal for the work of making sports interesting. The bad: clubby and insulated, choppy.
– make the magazine an experience. Regardless of what it reveals about my character, one of the several reasons that I like to read the New Yorker is that I enjoy the magazine’s concept, its vibe. In reading it I can engage in what I imagine to be a community of intellectually stimulated and talented writers and editors who put good solid thought into the magazine’s production. I recognize the writers and have a sense of the perspective that they will offer, anticipating their next projects. A crew of wizened writer-craftsmen making great baseball stories would have my 5 dollars every month for a lifetime.
With that simple subscription, in the case of the New Yorker, I’m granted access to a movement, and inherent in that term is the implication that the collective effort is in constant motion, moving towards an unseen goal. No matter the content, a magazine should inform, yes, but it should also engage and challenge and create the sense that the next issue will go even further, punching holes in the sheetrock and letting in sunlight. Which brings me to my final point:
– a great baseball magazine should create content about RIGHT NOW. As a writer professor I once worked with told a class, the most readily available way to write something new is to write about the exact time that we are living in. This minute right here has never happened before in the vast savannah of history. No one has written it or read about it because it’s the freshest minute that ever existed. A baseball magazine should eschew the trampled flora of history for the sprouts poking out of the garden this second. The game is a new game, every day is a new bevy of stories and myths and magicians. Tell those stories, work with web writers and crazy-ass web content, send writers into the small town in the Dominican and to the high school fields of Japan.
This particular moment would be a ridiculous one in which to start a fledgling specialty magazine. Boom time is a better setting for flights of literary and sporting fancy. But I’m happy to put this exercise together, as far from my expertise as it may reach. It never hurts to envision the perfect union of time, place, and artistry, realistic or no. For now a mag like Baseball Digest doesn’t do it for me. But it doesn’t hurt to think about that glowing publication that, speaking from the pulp mill of the future, will.