Swallowing Shots of “Stupid”

the-village-voice--september-25-2011

UPDATE: MAY 21, 2013 — I wrote this piece on May 13, little did I know that this Village Voice situation would blow up 8 times over within a week. (also this, and this.)

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When it comes to publishing, Hong Kong is an anomaly, in that print here is not only surviving, but it’s thriving. South China Morning Post, a publication for which I worked and from which I learned, is apparently the most profitable newspaper in the world. They’re doing so well that they just purchased Asia City, which publishes HK Magazine, another magazine that turns a monster profit due to its insane number of ads, many of which cater to rich expats of Hong Kong.

This is not normal. In the US, print publications are disappearing left and right. Many believe only truly legacy publications like New York Times, TIME, and Wall Street Journal, along with fashion magazines that are reliant on big, glossy visuals, have any realistic shot of surviving beyond, say, the end of this decade.

I witnessed first hand the decline of print in New York last year, when I worked briefly with the Village Voice. The Voice is, or was, legendary, for they are the original alternative newspaper in the United States, and the original hipster/fight-the-man media in New York City. The Voice has suffered so much lost ad revenue through the years that they had to resort to selling ads for prostitution — a practice that has led to swift and heavy criticism.

With lost revenue came inability to properly compensate talent. Two years ago, the Voice laid off J Hoberman, a highly respected figure in the film criticism industry. In fact, Mr Hoberman’s layoff led to a slew of world-renowned film critics condemning the Village Voice, including NYT’s AO Scott, who tweeted something about the Voice “losing all creditability.” The late, great Mr Ebert was angry at the Voice too, but I can’t find exactly what he wrote.

Whereas the Voice once employed seasoned journalists with decades of experience, the decline of print/lost revenue led to an increase in younger, less-experienced, less-established — and most importantly, CHEAPER — journalists filling the Voice’s masthead. People like me, for example, and a couple other writers whom I won’t name, but were barely 25 last year.

(The Voice still has/had some legit, legit writers on payroll when I was there though, including Michael Musto, who wrote two novels, and Graham Rayman, a finalists for a Pulitzer Prize. Voice alumni have fares very well too, including Zach Baron of Grantland and Taneishi Coates of The Atlantic)

Even then, the Voice couldn’t stop its decline. My mentor (the man who hired me), Steven Thrasher, a gay black man who wrote stirring yarns about the injustices minorities face for the Voice and New York Times, was laid off from the Voice in July of 2012, less than two weeks after being named National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association journalist of the year. Maura Johnston and Camille Dodero, two highly respected music writers, were laid off later.

The Village Voice might also move out of its legendary Cooper Union office in the East Village — seriously, it was an honor to have worked out of that location — this year in a cost-cutting move. It’s sad.

What’s happening in Cooper Union is just one half of my “Oh shit, print is in trouble” epiphany while in New York. The other half? SLAM Magazine.

(YES, THIS IS WHERE NBA COMES IN. Y’all thought I was gonna write a whole blog post without mention of the L?)

I grew up reading SLAM. It taught me black/hip hop culture — SLAM was billed as the in-yo-face magazine, and 80% of their story heds are hip hop references of some sort. Example: “The Life and Times of V. Carter” for a story on Vince Carter — most importantly, SLAM made me want to be a writer.

I remember reading SLAM in July 1998, the issue that came after Jordan won his sixth ring. I remember reading this blurb, describing the Bulls’ beating the Jazz despite some in the media deeming the Jazz the favorites. Here’s the quote:

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I remember how fresh and raw that paragraph felt. This was 1998, when terms like “hater” wasn’t mainstream vernacular yet. I remember reading that quote and laughing out loud, thinking “holy shit, SLAM is clowning on mainstream fans! I WANT TO DO THAT ONE DAY.”

(The term hater is very, very, very misused these days, by the way. You generally have to be the best of the best to have haters. Jordan has haters, Kobe has haters. Today we have random chicks claiming they have haters because of a bad comment on their food blog. Go away.)

SLAM and Iverson exploded together in the mid 90s, helping shape our perception of cool:

slam-iverson-hair

So anyway, fast forward some 12 years later and I actually got the opportunity to write for SLAM. I wrote several pieces for them throughout 2010 and 2011, when I was living in Hong Kong. When I moved to Gotham in 2012, I emailed the editor, also named Ben, about potential jobs.

Ben told me that times are very tough for print right now, and that the entire mag only has four full time staff, two of which are fresh-grad types.

“There just isn’t a lot of money to go around right now,” he said.

This was SLAM magazine — one of the first “hip hop lifestyle” magazines anywhere; the magazine that prides itself on its swag; the IN YO FACE magazine — saying “times are tough.”

Of course, maybe he just didn’t want to hire me. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough. But the magazine has slimmed down considerably. It used to run 150 to 250 pages per. Now it’s, like, 78 pages. Many of the “black” ads, for sneaker cleaners, bling bling jewelry shops, afro picks (serious), have disappeared.

SLAM magazine shaped my life. And according to this Jay Caspian Kang piece in Grantland, it shaped his too. I have a feeling a whole generation of white and Asian boys are typing “Yo”, “All day, baby, all day!”, and “C’mon son” because of SLAM.

I’m still a believer in print though. Of course, the days of hundreds of magazines on newstands and kids running home and finding the latest copy of GamePro in the mailbox are gone, but longform journalism — proper storytelling — will survive.

Publications like the New York Times have slowly learned to adapt to the new media rules, introducing a mostly successful paywall a couple of years ago, along with improving, by leaps and bounds, its interactive coverage. A few name journalists, who had left print publications to work for bloggy new-media types, has reversed course, like Matt Buchanan, who left Buzzfeed for the New Yorker.

Print’s figuring things out. Of course, the margin for error is slim, but the best ones will survive. Print won’t ever be dead.

And to paraphrase a quote from SLAM (damn I’ve wanted to do this for some 15 years): The same haters that had print dead will be swallowing shots of “stupid”. Eventually. Hopefully.

—-

My SLAM collection from 2003. I remember, every month around the same time, I’d come home from school and check my mailbox for SLAM. I’d reach my hand in there and feel around. Twenty nine days of the month, nothing. But that one day when the magazine is there? I’d grin and start doing fistpumps. Shit, my first girlfriend remembers this. She said I got more giddy over SLAM than seeing her. Which was not true (maybe).

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Me in 2013, as a grownassman, with the latest copy of SLAM (that cover tagline is yet another hip hop reference). As a kinda-journalist now, I now see that SLAM’s features are of the fluff piece variety, but still, the respect will always be there.

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One thought on “Swallowing Shots of “Stupid”

  1. Peter Guy says:

    Ben:

    Good to read your thoughts and some of your experience in NYC. And glad to see you are back in HK. Given my business and investment experience, some of your observations about the health of HK print media appear incorrect.

    Asia City sold its HK assets primarily comprising HK Magazine, The List and related assets for only HKD30 million. That is a paltry sum of money considering all the work that has gone into the magazines over the last 20 years. Indeed, there are small nightclubs who have only been in business several years that could be sold for more money.

    Furthermore, a cursory observation of HK Magazine and talks with their people reveals that their ads have been in decline for years. Increasingly more readers are getting their clubbing and dining information online.

    However, you are right to observe that print perniciously refuses to die in this town. Some explanations include the cheap cost of printing across the border, relatively cheaper distribution costs compared to NYC or London.

    Another reason is that alot of the internet based media sites that you see in the US are not found in HK. But, I think change is on the way.

    Hope to see you soon for drinks or dinner!

    Best regards,
    Peter Guy

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