On the center rack

Looking for this month’s issue of New Eden among the hundreds and hundreds of magazine titles available at your newsstand? Good luck. Assuming youhttp://www.thenewrepublic.com’re willing to browse for five minutes to find the gardening section, there are literally dozens of similar magazines that you can choose from, although the one you thought you wanted may not be there.

Recent consolidations in magazine publishing and distribution could have a chilling effect on availability in some markets. But this warning couldn’t be less believable than it is now. Seen from within the overgrown periodical department of the bookstore, it’s hard to believe that a corporate stranglehold on media will have any effect on the diversity of voices clamoring for our attention at equally capital-heavy newsstands. The major problem that seems to confront the reader-consumer at Borders or Barnes & Noble megastores (and even at some of the smaller outfits) is finding that one sought-for periodical among the profusion available on the shelves.

And of course, while you’re looking, you might find something else that you like. After all, that’s what shopping is all about — finding other things you might buy on the long path to the one thing you actually wanted.

Not that there’s anything to worry about if you actually want something a bit esoteric. The proliferation of niche-driven choice is the order of the day. Whether you’re into Asian pop culture, model railroading, digital photography or genital piercing, you’ve got your pick of glossy slabs. Not sure about whether or not electronic dance music really jibes with your rock ’n’ roll heart? Your hybrid doubt has a half-dozen magazines to choose from. And God help you if you’re into home decorating. Even if you decide that Elle Decor is too mod and Country Living too old-fashioned, you’ve only narrowed the field down to about 80 possible choices!

Magazines that cater to a specialized market — from adventure tourism to hotrods to electronics repair — don’t appear threatened. Indeed, those corporate rats at our bookstores and distribution houses, and even those dreaded advertising executives at the magazines, act as if their very livelihood depended on giving us what we want.

Which is good, because magazines are important. Articles in Harper’s Magazine, New Republic, Newsweek and the Nation ask us to examine and reflect on the world differently than newspapers or books do. They provide a public forum. Who knows, some people might be paying attention.

And at first glance, consumer-taste magazines such as Modern Bride, Vogue or Home Decorating (where ad space practically is editorial content) may represent the reverse of this virtuous mandate: producing a corporate-controlled sphere where human values are replaced by shopping values.

This worry may even be amplified by the practicality of many magazines. In them, we can learn how to use home computers, apply makeup, invest in our retirement or choose the right daycare. Magazines tell us how to live. And maybe that’s why they’re so subject to ideological criticism. Not just “corporate scum distribution autocracy” criticism, but the everyday disgust we direct toward magazines whose style we don’t identify with. Few magazines are more dismissed than the ubiquitously happy Parenting, Better Homes and Gardens and Vogue. Are their editors on Prozac?

Despite our sense of knowing derision, what these titles do for their audience might not be so very different from the dialogue we find in “hipper” titles like the Utne Reader or Adbusters or Hip Mama magazines. They help us prepare for and navigate our lives in the world.

So it’s understandable if the articles about the concentration of power in the hands of four big distribution companies that appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other nonmagazine sources didn’t scare us at first. Magazines mean diversity. And even if we don’t think of ourselves as a collection of the niche markets we inhabit, it feels as if the magazine racks aren’t threatened.

But remember, it’s difficult to find what you want on those overcrowded racks. And wouldn’t the loss of a few extraneous titles that get in your way when you’re looking for something else be felt as a relief? Which ones would you want the distributors to stop carrying, on the claim that they don’t have enough readers anyway? How long will it be before they come for yours?

Marc Christensen writes about magazines and (un)popular ideas for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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