The following was written by Terry Teachout, of About Last Night. It's from an article he wrote in 1994 called "Profile of a Profiler," about Michael Rozek and the magazine he created.
Magazines aren't what they used to be. Most things aren't, of course, but the slow demise of the general-interest magazine is one of the saddest episodes in the decline and fall of American culture. Time was when the American magazine was a liberal-arts education all by itself--when subscriptions to a half-dozen carefully chosen publications could open a thousand magic casements of the mind. Consider, say, the list of writers who contributed regularly to the New Yorker between 1940 and 1960: James Thurber, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, John O'Hara, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Truman Capote, Joseph Mitchell, Whitney Balliett. . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.
Nor was the New Yorker a lone, glittering exception to the general rule. Popular magazines used to take their readers seriously, not on special occasions but as a matter of course. They sought out good writers and gave them room to talk about things that mattered. Forty-six years ago this March, Time put theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on its cover and assigned Whittaker Chambers to write the story. Today's popular magazines, by contrast, specialize in bite-sized stories about "cutting-edge" ephemera. Instant celebrities are their preferred subject matter. (One prominent New York editor recently announced his intention of hunting down "the zeitgeist of the week.") And skepticism--the corrosive kind, not the healthy kind--is the order of the day, every day. If Time and the New Yorker were the quintessential magazines of the 1940s, surely People and Vanity Fair are their contemporary counterparts.
In order to get a clearer understanding of the decadent magazine culture of the 1990s, try to imagine a publication that is the exact opposite of the "dot books" that crowd today's newsstands. What would it look like? What would it contain? To begin with, it would be plain as a post: no flashy graphics, no glossy ads, no ultramodern typefaces. It would run long articles. It would emphasize personalities but shun celebrities. It would be written in a strong yet self-effacing style that focuses attention on the subject, not the writer. It would be about values, not attitudes.
To put it another way, it would be a publication very much like Rozek's.
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