The writer, in recent years, has become an endangered species in the magazine industry. The film industry. The advertising industry. Basically everywhere that writers once reigned supreme. Magazines have shifted toward more photography, and image-based advertising to fill their pages. Or re-publishing articles that first appeared online. Basically, magazines have slowly but surely been losing their “Must Read” status.
Writers have been noticing this happen in every industry in which they once found jobs. Magazines, for decades, were where young writers would go to gain their early experience. Articles, short-stories, and opinion pieces would pepper the pages of monthlies and semi-monthlies; giving the writers some exposure, and giving the magazines some content that couldn’t be found anywhere else. But as magazines shifted away from writers (especially new writers), and toward more pictorials, and even more ads… writers found themselves without a home.
“In school, all our professors said: ‘Magazines are where you’ll get your start.’” said NT Herrgott, an aspiring writer. “But then you graduate and the magazines aren’t hiring, websites won’t pay you, so you just, like, have to do it on your own. Trial by fire. Learn as you go. It’s really stressful to be honest, but it works for some people.” Herrgott just completed his first novel and manages a website and culture blog where his postings are read by tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people.
Angie McDonald, a journalism and creative writing grad from Concordia University told me: “Mainstream magazines are the worst for writers. Unless you’ve written a bestselling book, or been lauded by Oprah, they don’t want to hear from you. It’s a terrible cycle at this point. Magazines don’t want to work with you if you don’t have an agent. But most reputable literary agencies would like you to have published, at least, a short story in a magazine. It makes my head spin.”
So young writers are finding that magazines, once the promised land for undiscovered talent, have become a bit barren. Prose writers and journalists aren’t the only ones having trouble though. I spoke with an Ad Exec in Vancouver, who asked not to be named, who is finding that the art of writing hasn’t been taken seriously in advertising for years. “You look back at the old days, and it’s a whole other world. Copywriters dictated everything that went into an advertising campaign. Now, most agencies don’t even employ copywriters. It’s just expected that other people will pick up the slack. The social media team, for instance. They’re in charge of engagement with Twitter, Facebook… not the copy for a giant billboard in downtown. But a lot of time that pressure is put on them. And they’re not being paid to have that pressure on them, let me tell you.”
“Writers seem to be the first jobs that get cut when agencies are ‘trimming the fat’”, Thompson said with disgust. “And then we realize how important they are and we foist their entire job description onto someone else. As a manager, it is maddening when these orders come down.”
But things may be changing for writers now. As billboards become less impactful, and magazines filled to the brim with ads find their readership numbers dwindling, publications like Tin House, Fields Magazine, The Normal School, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern are not only seeing their sales numbers even out, but grow. These books are filled with short-stories, journalism, poetry, and essays. With wonderfully eye-catching covers, and contributors as disparate as unknown romance novelists to Stephen King.
Some advertising agencies are recommending to clients that they abandon Facebook ads in favor of blogging. And while film remains the medium of big budgets, explosions, and super heroes (not that I’m complaining), television has become even more of a writers medium than ever before.
And a new competitor for our attention has risen on the horizon. Narrative podcasts. Podcasts were once a place for interviews, ranting, and oversized personalities… but now with podcasts like Serial, The Alarmist, and History of the 90s, writers are getting the chance to write awesome, engaging content that people can listen to, instead of read.
“People are commuting, and you’ve got their full attention. The words you’ve written become their world. There’s nothing like it,” said Mike Yarvitz, producer of the phenomenal Bag Man podcast, which he produces with news mega-star Rachel Maddow.
So as literary magazines see a sales come back, podcasts go narrative, and companies choose blogs over Facebook ads… could we be seeing the dawn of an age where writers have a seat at the table once again? As someone who reads constantly, but has unsubscribed to a lot of magazines as their pages contain fewer and fewer words, I certainly hope so.