On Writing, Experimentation,
and The Magazine
When the guy at the haircut place asks me what I do, the simplest answer is, “I write for magazines.” That answer ignores the fact that much of my income comes from blogging, and I’m a filmmaker too, and I write books, but it’s good enough.
A few weeks back, news broke that one of the magazines I have written for the most, The Magazine, is stopping regular publication later this year. This is a particular bummer for me, because I’ve put a lot of effort into writing features for The Magazine over the past few years. So what happens when a magazine writer’s main magazine gig ends?
When The Magazine began in 2012, founder Marco Arment described it publicly as an experiment. That experimental tradition continued in mid-2013 when Glenn Fleishman bought the publication. I think it’s important to explain what an “experiment” in this context means.
So here’s the thing. I’m a freelance writer. That means I hustle. I find a story idea, I find a place to “pitch” it (propose the story), I get an “assignment” (an editor agrees that I should write the story), then (assuming all goes according to plan) I write the story, it goes through editing, and it’s published. Then I do it over again.
Every story I write is an experiment — will the editor like it? Will the audience like it? Will I get paid? I repeat this experiment, and I try to spot the stories (and the publications) that work. My career is defined by experimentation. I throw work at the wall (different work, different walls) and see what sticks. If I’m not experimenting, I’m not doing my job.
When I saw The Magazine, I saw a tremendous opportunity to experiment. Here was a place to tell the kinds of geeky stories I like to tell, and the pay was great. So I started pitching, and I started writing. Pretty quickly, I was among the most frequent contributors. Cool.
The Upside of Failed Experiments
Each article I wrote for The Magazine represented a simple question for me: Is it worth reporting this story for $800? The answer, ten times over, was hell yes.
There was a time when The Magazine paid for some stories on Medium (at a lower rate than in the main magazine) and I experimented with that too — see my articles here on The Unipiper and The Wayback Machine.
In every case, I was paid well, I developed a solid relationship with an editor (Glenn Fleishman), and I got more experience writing magazine profiles.
Now The Magazine is shutting down. The experiment has “failed,” but it happened in such a way that:
- Everybody got paid (half a million bucks paid out to contributors and editors!).
- Writers still own their work and can republish it wherever they like.
- A beautiful hardcover book collected great stories from the first year (and the year two book is funding now—go Kickstart it!). Oh yeah, and writers got paid again for the book(s), even though The Magazine had no legal obligation to do so.
- The quality bar never dropped. Most publishers would’ve crammed the app with ads, slashed writers’ pay rates, and otherwise driven the thing into the ground as revenue dropped. Instead, Glenn kept experimenting with the technical side (changing the app platform, expanding the Web site, changing the number of articles per issue, introducing an annual book…) to reduce costs without sacrificing editorial quality until it was clear he had to call it a day. And he’s actually refunding the unused portions of longer subscriptions. This is a supremely classy way to wrap it up.
- The work lives on. The Web site and app are sticking around, the stories stay there. That’s unusual. Many projects that end (especially online) are flushed down the memory drain. Not so here.
For a “failed” experiment, things turned out great. I have worked on plenty of shuttered projects that ended with everybody being broke and bitter. I wrote several full books for a museum project that will never see the light of day — now that’s upsetting.
In this case, the fact that The Magazine is shutting down is certainly a bummer, but the overwhelming mood among writers I’ve spoken to is not about failure. It’s more like, you know, five stars, would write for again. We celebrate The Magazine because we want more publications to be like it.
As a freelancer, this means I shift my hustle. I probably write fewer geeky profiles of this particular sort. But that’s okay—I’m working on a documentary film (about competitive Tetris!), I’ve got other writing gigs lined up, and I’m working on a new book. I’ve got plenty to do, and I’m grateful to have met so many writers, editors, and readers during The Magazine’s run.
It’s Not Gone Yet
If you ever wondered about The Magazine, or felt like you should’ve read some of those articles that piled up on your iPad, I urge you to buy the Year 2 book, and consider picking up the Year 1 book along with it (heck, the ebook version is free). And I urge you to do it today, because time is very short.
These books are the best outcomes of the ongoing experiment that is The Magazine. They will endure, and they remind us in a wonderfully physical way what good work went into this thing. And yeah, I wrote some cool stuff about Star Trek and Tetris and unicycling bagpipers in them. You want to read that, right?