Shelf Life

Both have been longtime favorites of the Utne Reader staff, always absent from the library, holed up in an office or lying on someone’s nightstand at home. Clamor could be counted on to present diverse, emerging voices on a range of social issues, and its focus on activism set it apart from other magazines in its field. LiP approached politics and culture from a more academic, anticapitalist perspective, with sprinklings of satire to lighten things up.

This news got me thinking about the life cycles of independent magazines. Generally, one can take comfort in the fact that where an indie publication falls, one or two more rise in its place. Every year in the Utne library, we see more independent magazines launch than land. But there are also those that quietly cut back production, producing four issues a year instead of six; those that increase their numbers of unpaid staff, with quality suffering as a result; those that struggle to find the balance between content in print and online.

The death knell of independent print publishing has been sounded many times, with pontificators suggesting that the Internet might be a better home for the indie press. I’ll admit that my devotion to print-to the tactile, immutable nature of this 550-year-old medium-generally leads me to shrug off these suggestions. But news of Clamor‘s demise and LiP’s ‘indefinite hiatus,’ both financially driven decisions, made me wonder: Is there a sustainable future in independent print media?

Starting out, both parties were certainly aware of the challenges of print publishing, but they opted to embark on the costly print path nonetheless. When editors Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma published the first issue of Clamor in February 2000-inspired in part by the recent World Trade Organization protests in Seattle-they acknowledged it would be difficult to keep their magazine alive. But live it did, for nearly seven years, and always amid precarious finances. In fact, Clamor‘s 39th issue was in the final stages of layout-but ‘thousands of dollars away from the printer’-when its editors and publishers decided to close up shop.

LiP has been in and out of print since 1996, when Brian Awehali launched it as a hand-assembled zine with a 100-copy print run. LiP went online-only in 1999, and returned to print once more in 2004 with its ‘Oddly Dangersome ‘First’ Issue.’ Going on indefinite hiatus, Awehali says, keeps options open. LiP is likely to maintain an online presence, and he is considering a number of formats (books, anthologies, e-newsletters) that might ensure a more financially sustainable future.

I was eager to hear what Kucsma, Angel, and Awehali thought about the future of print publishing, but I also dreaded asking them. I anticipated bitter tales from the trenches of penniless magazine production; I thought perhaps they would feel frustrated or unsuccessful. That is, after all, how these endings are usually described: A magazine ‘fails’ or is ‘killed’-there isn’t really a graceful way to end it. The fact that it has stopped publishing is given more weight than what it accomplished while it was publishing.

Clamor published more than 1,000 writers and artists in its 38 issues, Kucsma says. ‘One of our goals was for Clamor to be an amplifier for voices in the margins, for people who would not otherwise have had a mass media audience reading their stuff,’ he says. ‘And in that way, we were really successful.’

Kucsma says he’s not ready to give up on print just yet, though he is studying digital archiving and preservation in library school, and he suggests that independent publishers might shift their energies to multimedia projects that are ‘less environmentally and financially taxing.’

Which brings us to a paradox that’s becoming increasingly difficult for independent publishers-especially progressive, environmentally conscious ones-to resolve. ‘Being values-driven,’ says Awehali, ‘I think we’re fundamentally and structurally at odds with the systems we use to print, to distribute, and so on. It’s really no surprise that we found it difficult to survive and thrive in a hypercapitalist periodicals marketplace.’

As costs of fuel and paper continue to rise, he concludes, ‘I don’t see a future for sustainable independent print media at all, but I’m not so sure that means there shouldn’t be one.’

Print may be difficult-unsustainable, even-but it clearly holds an enduring allure for people who want to get their ideas out there, and new magazines will no doubt continue to emerge. Fellow print lovers, I implore you to support these projects, old and new, if you can.

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