Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lessons from an old magazine

Good magazines are like close friends: full of personality and interesting stories, and a reliable source of useful information that can change how we think about the world. The best of them tell us—with wit and wisdom—things about ourselves and those around us that we need to know. A magazine shares a common definition with the military use of the word: a place where explosives are kept. A really good magazine is full of surprises and can explode at any moment.

That, at least, is what we tried to accomplish with Diagnostic Imaging, a newsmagazine that has served the reading interests of radiologists and other imaging professionals for 30 years. Editorially, we were subversives who did our level best to rock the staid, conservative world of radiology. Sadly, DI is no more; the December issue was its last. Like other magazines and newspapers too numerous to name, it fell victim to a collision of market and cultural forces that were years in the making.

I was chief editor of DI for almost 20 years, until 2001, and put more energy, time and intellect into it than almost anything I’ve done in life. The magazine became, as much as an inanimate object can, a vessel of my values and priorities. It was my alter ego. It pains me to see it go. Even though I’ve had little to do with the magazine for years, I feel I’ve lost an old friend. The small staff present at the end included people I knew, including some I hired. They are not to blame for DI’s demise, which I attribute with some disgust to a lack of vision on the part of distant, disengaged managers and a failure to invest adequately in online resources.

Several of us who were associated with DI in its halcyon days held an online wake a few weeks ago when news broke about the shutdown. We worked together in San Francisco and remotely from home offices during an era when advertising for high-tech medical devices was at a zenith. As the most engaging magazine in radiology, and guided by wise publishers and a relentless sales staff, we snared a dominant market share. The magazine made millions. One issue published in the late ‘80s was 462 pages and weighed about two pounds. For years, the stories and editorials we wrote were topics of conversation and sometimes controversy in radiology. We did journalism the way it’s supposed to be done—with vigor, care and imagination. We worked hard but had a blast. Those I worked with were for the most part people of intelligence and character. Those for whom we worked were, in turn, smart enough to stand back and let us do what we were trained to do. It was magical how well things turned out for everyone.

As an instructor in new media, I teach students today who will eventually be working in jobs primarily in the electronic media, many of which don’t yet exist. This is an exciting time of change and diversification in the media landscape. Magazines are not dead, but they must compete for the attention of readers as never before. The comparatively simple environment that existed when DI was on a roll is unlikely to be seen again. Success stories similar to ours have already emerged in the electronic world, however, and I believe they will proliferate.

One of the simple truths of journalism is that how ideas and information are communicated is never as important as the ideas and information themselves. The medium is not the message. It is the forming of words and sentences, and the meaning they impart, that we should value above the platform from which they're communicated. In that way, many of the good things that we accomplished with DI have outlived the tired old format in which the magazine itself became hidebound. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere for how we should also think about how we live our lives.


Rick, AVFC California Supporters said...

I am sorry to hear about the loss of this "friend" Peter. Your post is a great tribute to DI as well as professional journals as a whole.

Anonymous said...

That was sad to read. You know how I love my magazines.