Our Immodest Ambitions
Some guidance along our road to greatness.
In a February 2018 post titled "Worth Saving", I said I'd like Linux Journal to be for technology what The New Yorker is for New York and National Geographic is for geography. In saying this, I meant it should be two things: 1) a magazine readers value enough not to throw away and 2) about much more than what the name says, while staying true to the name as well.
The only push-back I got was from a guy whose comment called both those model pubs "fanatically progressive liberal whatever" and said he hoped we're not "*planning* to emulate those tainted styles". I told him we weren't. And, in case that's not clear, I'm saying it here again. (For what it's worth, I think The New Yorker has some of the best writing anywhere, and I've hardly seen a National Geographic outside a doctor's office in decades.)
Another commenter asked, "Is there another publication that you'd offer up as an example to emulate?" I replied, "Three come quickly to mind: Scientific American, the late Dr. Dobb's and Byte. Just think of all three when they were at their best. I want Linux Journal to honor those and be better as well."
Scientific American is the only one of those three that's still alive. Alas, it's not what it once was: the most authoritative yet popular science magazine in the world—or at least, that's how it looked when my parents gave me a subscription when I was 12. Back then I wanted to read everything I could about science—when I wasn't beeping code to other ham radio operators from my bedroom or otherwise avoiding homework assignments.
Today, Scientific American is probably as close as it can get to that legacy ideal while surviving in the mainstream of magazine publishing—meaning it persists in print and digital form while also maintaining a constant stream of topical stories on its website.
That last thing is the main work of most magazines these days—or so it seems. As a result, there isn't much difference between Scientific American, Smithsonian, Wired, Ars Technica and Inverse. To demonstrate what I mean, here are stories from those five publications' websites. See if you can guess (without clicking on the links) where each one ran—and which one is a fake headline:
- "We Were So Very Wrong About the Size of the Andromeda Galaxy"
- "Rare Mammoth Tracks Reveal an Intimate Portrait of Herd Life"
- "The New Distributed Ledger That Out-Blockchains Blockchain"
- "If You Want to Know How to Stop School Shootings, Ask the Secret Service"
- "Ancient DNA rules out archaeologists' best bet for horse domestication"
- "America's Secret Ice Base Won't Stay Frozen Forever"
The problem with all of them isn't only that they could run anywhere, but that they are all just content—or seem to be, no matter how good they might actually be. (While they can be very good, one example of how they often aren't is that I had to fix the spelling in one of the five real headlines.)
Here's what I said in "The Problem with Content" (in the March 2017 issue of Linux Journal):
Back in the early '00s, John Perry Barlow said "I didn't start hearing about 'content' until the container business felt threatened." Linux Journal was one of those containers—so was every other magazine, newspaper and broadcast station. Today, those containers are bobbing around in an ocean of "content" on the Internet. Worse, the stuff inside the containers, which we used to call "editorial", is now a breed of "content" too.
In the old days, editorial lived on one side of a "Chinese wall" between itself and the publishing side of a newspaper or magazine. The same went for the programming and advertising sides of a commercial broadcast station or network. The wall was transparent, meaning it was possible for a writer, a photographer, a newscaster or a performing artist to see what funded the operation, but the ethical thing was to ignore what happened on the other side of that wall. Which was easy to do, because everything on the other side of that wall was somebody else's job.
Today that wall has been destroyed by the imperatives of "content production", which is the new job of journalists and everybody else devoted to "generating content" in maximum volumes, all the better to attract "programmatic" advertising.
By doing only the old-fashioned kind of advertising that simply sponsors our work and carries no tracking, we're free to zero-base something different and better than you'll see elsewhere. And that applies both here inside the magazine and in other media as well, starting with the website.
So far I see three requirements for becoming as good as we want to be.
First is featuring great writers you know by name and who you expect to produce great stuff. [I'm not sure OMNI magazine (1978–1995) was great, but it sure tried hard. I was part of that, contributing humorous pieces to early issues. When that failed to become a full-time gig, I did what many other journalists do when they reach their rope's end: I started an ad agency. That grew into one of the biggest in Silicon Valley before I got pulled back to journalism again in the 1990s—by Linux Journal.] We already have some of those in our stable of veteran contributors, but we want more.
Second is by being as fun, practical and authoritative as we can on Linux topics. A nice model for that, among successful contemporary publications, is Make. We should be for Linux what Make is for the maker movement.
Third is by going deep. I want us to drill down on topics that are important and relevant to our readers, but not covered elsewhere—or not covered well enough.
As always, we invite guidance from readers toward all of those.