Every household I know still has at least one — a treasured print subscription. In the midst of all the unwelcome catalogs, credit card offers, and bills, there is that one weekly or monthly periodical we still get in print, still look forward to, and still place on our nightstands or living room tables.
As the holiday gift season is upon us, I thought it would be interesting to see what the Chefs are still hanging onto in the print subscription world — both for insights into what persists and holds its value, but also for possible gift ideas. So, this months “Ask the Chefs” question is:
What’s the most important print subscription you haven’t canceled?
Answers are presented in the order received, and aside from me, you are the first people to see all the answers together. Enjoy!
Stewart Wills: Every few weeks, I come home from work to find, among the usual bills, holiday catalogs, and dental-appointment reminders, the latest copy of the New York Review of Books. For as long as I’ve subscribed to it (indeed, as long as I can remember noticing), NYRB has been printed on cheap stock only slightly above newsprint quality, and in tabloid format. That makes it an uneasy fit with my suburban mailbox. Indeed, on the days it arrives, it almost arrogantly lords it over the other mail, daring you to decide whether you’ve received a newspaper, a magazine, or some left-leaning hybrid. This is a format with attitude.
In addition to the incalculable gift of making me feel more intelligent and interesting than I actually am, the print NYRB offers another: the gift of serendipity. Granted, it does not bestow that gift equally from issue to issue. Some issues seem packed with diverse, must-read material, uncannily selected with me in mind; others seem to contain nothing but billion-page appreciations of obscure painters of the Italian Renaissance—articles that I know I should read, but, alas, often don’t. “But why don’t you just go to the NYRB Web site, and search for only the content you want?” The question answers itself: Because I might miss the latest billion-page appreciation of an obscure Renaissance painter . . . **
“But surely,” you object, “NYRB could develop a slick app—one that would give you the proverbial ‘lean-back’ experience, that would multiply serendipity tenfold through the ability to browse back issues, and that would not require you to purloin the household’s latest print issue before your wife can get hold of it.” Perhaps. But until an app can be developed that offers the quiet pleasure of seeing, on a cool autumn evening, the latest issue, brusquely elbowing aside the more quotidian contents of the mailbox; an app that can capture the few minutes spent standing at the curb, leafing through the latest NYRB before folding it in half, tucking it under my arm, and going inside to settle down with it on my red living-room couch with a well-mixed Manhattan—well, until that app comes along, I guess I’ll have to stick to print.
** I’ve often wondered if even the most positive review in NYRB confers something of a mixed blessing on the authors whose works are so honored. In more cases than I’d care to mention, I’ve finished reading one of the meaty, discursive articles in this journal with the sense that the book under discussion sounds quite interesting, but that I have perhaps learned enough about the subject in the review to make something as radical as actually purchasing the book unnecessary.
Joe Esposito: I’m down to three print subscriptions: the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. About 3-4 years ago, I began cancelling subscriptions, print and digital, because of the sheer amount of unread material. So out went Scientific American, the Economist, the Atlantic, Wired, Business Week, Against the Grain, and a lot more. And this does not include the dearly departed friends of the print world, many of which railed about the need to adapt to technological change but failed to do so themselves: the Red Herring, the Industry Standard, Upside, etc. I am happy to report that I no longer subscribe to the Wall Street Journal in any form and won’t subscribe again unless the price comes down to where it needs to be — about one-third the cost of the Times.
Calling the Times a print subscription is cheating, though, because subscribing to the Times for Sunday alone brings you unlimited access to all the digital editions — at a price cheaper than the digital editions without print. Go figure. I don’t see stopping my print subscriptions to either the New York Review or the New Yorker while I am still breathing, and don’t see their digital editions as having any utility outside of access to the archives. (The New Yorker app for the iPad is the single worst app I have installed.) I would say that the print edition of the New York Review is the central media organ of my life. I will never part with it.
By the way, all those print subscriptions I cancelled? I haven’t taken out subscriptions to any of them in digital form.
Kent Anderson: The most popular print subscription in our household, and one I can’t imagine ever giving up, is the New Yorker. That said, there are others, especially Sports Illustrated Kids and Popular Science, which my son snags as soon as they’re delivered, disappearing to read them in a flash. For my wife and I, the New Yorker has become a ritual — I get the new issues first, and hand them over to her when I’m done. This has resulted in her usually finishing the prior week’s issue at about the time I turn over the current week’s, so we’re in perfect unison. Print helps us share the issues, both in that sequencing manner but also in the smaller sense of being able to point out funny cartoons to the kids and each other, dog ear pages for one another, and rip out articles we want to save for people who might be visiting in a few weeks.
We sometimes get a year or so of free subscription for a magazine pursuing controlled circulation as a strategy. It’s often not clear why we’ve been targeted, and it’s interesting to watch our own behavior. First, we find them hard to throw away. Inevitably, we peruse them in idle moments as they lurk on our countertops. Second, if they’re about current events (and not fashion or a seasonal sport or home goods), we’ll likely read the magazines. Third, when the free subscriptions stop, we miss them. Print has the power to infiltrate its way into our lives that digital still has difficulty doing.
David Smith: My first reaction to this question was, “I don’t remember when I DID have a print subscription to something, past childhood” (The Beano — UK readers of a certain age will now nod sagely). Then a couple of neurons fired up and reminded me of the time I wrote a stroppy letter to the editors of Sky & Telescope.
I am an amateur astronomer. Now if this bug bites, and you get past the barrier of “but it’s always cloudy,” your path will take you to the magazine world for your monthly fix of info on the heavens above. It keeps you going when it’s cloudy, and provides motivation when it’s cold outside. I think people read running magazines for the same reason. Anyway, I picked up the three competitors (Sky & Telescope — S&T for those in the know; Astronomy; and our very own, Sky at Night), and S&T seemed the most interesting. So I bought a two-year subscription to it. This put me in the upper zone of subscribers, a customer who likes the product enough to give money 104 weeks in advance for a product to be supplied. And a customer giving you money two years in advance is worth something. Or so you would think. For I would regularly walk into my local newsagents and discover that the latest issue of S&T was sitting there, whilst my subscriber copy would arrive whenever (the record was a month late). Twice I rang customer services to ask where my issues were getting to. The answer was they contracted out international delivery to somebody else, couldn’t do anything about it, etc., etc. I got a few free gratis copies for my trouble, but the last one of those didn’t show up. So, when the renewal latter did make it to me (funny that) signed by the editor, I wrote back. I never got a reply. It’s nine years since that happened. I’ve not bought a copy of S&T in that time.
I went without my print-based cloudy nights fix; there’s various sites online that are pretty good for the amateur astronomer. I’d be interested in an iPad subscription to Sky at Night, but the electronic version is just far more expensive than the print — and I just don’t want the print version these days. I do buy the occasional electronic issue, though. My wife gets a cheap subscription to TIME magazine. We don’t want the print version, but again, it’s very cheap, whilst the e-version is stupidly expensive for your iDevice. So we shove more plastic and paper into the recycling bin.
You know what I do subscribe to? Spotify. An awesome offering. Turn on the high quality settings, and you have a universe of music at your fingertips. For £10 per month, it’s a bargain. I wish there was an equivalent for the magazine world. Maybe Next Issue is it (but you can’t get it in the UK so I don’t know). But an offering where you can follow your interests through the articles in various magazines, from the latest to the archives would be interesting. Spotify for Magazines. I’d pay £10 per month for that. Wouldn’t even hesitate.
Phil Davis: The New Yorker. While the publisher offers a free tablet edition — and I’ve tried a few issues on my iPad — the experience just isn’t the same. I go to the New Yorker website for other reasons: to look up older articles, to listen to extended interviews, or to read a blog, but I’ll still wait each week for the next issue to arrive in our mailbox.
Todd Carpenter: I think your question is slightly off. I don’t think the distinction about what’s important or not is directly tied to why a print subscription is retained. For example, the Wall Street Journal is quite important business reading, but it’s not something I’ve personally ever had a print subscription to. Likewise, almost every industry publication I read is read online only.
While I have a few remaining print subscriptions, the “most important one” I still retain doesn’t have anything to do with the importance of the title. I still retain print for the Economist, Wired, and Wine Spectator (a gift), although I read both the Economist and Wired online regularly and perhaps more online than in print. In addition to these, I purposely retain two print subscriptions to two print photography magazines, B&W and Aperture. If I cared enough about getting rid of the paper, I would probably cut the first three print subscriptions, since I read most of that content online anyway. These two art magazines, however, I wouldn’t cancel. The photographic and design experience of digital art publications is not yet up to the quality of print publications. Even though the Apple Retina display is impressive, it doesn’t equal the quality of a highly-produced print copy for art images. In addition, the design experience of Aperture, in particular, is not something that is yet replicable outside of a PDF file, which is a poor simultaneous reading/viewing experience. The advances of CSS 3, adaptive layout, and media queries are improving the digital experience for highly designed publications, but in this particular use case, it will be some time yet before the online experience will match the overall experience of print. Until we reach that point, I’ll still keep my print subscriptions to photography magazines. More or less, everything else can go digital from my perspective. (I should note, though, that I am happy that libraries retain print for preservation purposes, since I am not convinced that digital preservation is something the community has worked out completely, but that is another post!)
Rick Anderson: I don’t personally subscribe to any scholarly journals; my library provides me with access to all of them I need. But the one personal print magazine subscription I can’t imagine myself ever canceling is the Atlantic. Over the years I’ve subscribed to many news-and-commentary titles, but I’ve eventually abandoned all of them: Newsweek faded into a pale shadow of its former self before eventually disappearing (for all intents and purposes) completely last year, and the Christian Science Monitor seems to be on a glide path to the same fate. I tried the Economist for a year, but I eventually realized I was reading it entirely out of obligation and that I quietly dreaded its weekly appearance. I still read Harper’s with some regularity, but the older I get the less patience I have with its smug, sneering nihilism (the cover story this month, and every month, is “Everyone’s a Phony and We’re All Going to Die and Good Riddance”). The Atlantic, on the other hand, makes my day every time it shows up in my mailbox. I appreciate its even-handedness (which should not be confused with “objectivity”): in one issue I’m likely to encounter a withering takedown of the US military’s incompetent generals by a writer like Thomas Ricks; in another issue I might find Caitlin Flanagan speaking truth to power about the real costs of divorce culture. Sandra Tsing Loh is usually hilarious (though often mordant and sometimes frustratingly glib). James Fallows, Clive Crook, David Graham — I don’t consider any of these writers an infallible source of pure truth (who is?), but as a group I find them compelling, sensible, enjoyable to read and richly informative. Consistent pleasure and useful information: what more can you ask of a news magazine?
Michael Clarke: I don’t really think of my remaining print subscriptions in terms of “importance” versus online-only subscriptions. I keep a number of print subscriptions for various reasons unrelated to their overall ranking in my personal hierarchy of information sources. I keep a Sunday-only subscription to the New York Times, for example, because I enjoy the ritual of the physical paper on a Sunday morning. Also, it is twice as much to subscribe to the digital-only edition for some reason so it would be worth it to subscribe to the print edition even if I never fetched it from my building lobby. I keep the Economist and the New Yorker mainly for reading during takeoff and landing. Both publications throw in a print edition for a small premium ($10/year in the case of the New Yorker) over online-only access so it is worth it to avoid the airline’s house magazine. That being said, I also read these publications online and via their iPad apps just as frequently as I read them in print. I also still receive print editions of various other magazines out of laziness (I haven’t made the switch as yet as I dread the complicated renewal jujitsu), because they were gifts, or because the publication doesn’t offer an online-only edition (I’m looking at you Nature). I probably could quite happily switch to digital-only access to all of these tomorrow – it is mostly FAA regulations and publisher pricing/bundling, which continues to incentivize print and that provides my mail carrier continued job security. The one print publication I would likely continue to hold on to is Monocle. Monocle is a preposterously thick publication that is gorgeously typeset, filled with pictures, and would loose something without the print artifact. That being said, I consider Monocle to be the least important publication I subscribe to, so there you go.
Alice Meadows: Unfortunately, answering this question truthfully will, I fear, reveal me as the deeply shallow person I really am! Not for me a subscription to the Economist or the Nation, nor even Vanity Fair. You see, my secret weakness is women’s magazines — more specifically British women’s magazines. Not the super glossy advertising vehicles like Vogue, nor the super trashy gossip mags like Hello. No, my tastes are decidedly middlebrow, and my one remaining paid print subscription is, therefore, to the UK edition of Good Housekeeping.
Why print? Well, apart from the fact that it feels like such a treat when it arrives (so much of my mail is either bills or junk), I love that it’s printed on nice paper, well laid out, and with lots of well produced full-color pictures. I also love that it primarily features people and places from what will always, to some extent, be my homeland. And, of course, I especially love that I can read it (safely!) in the bath.
So, much though I enjoy reading the newspaper on my Kindle, and I’m very happy to read news, feature, and scholarly articles online I’m not about to give up my print subscription to Good Housekeeping anytime soon.
However, if the damage is not already done, perhaps the fact that I do also still value my free editorial board member’s print subscription to Learned Publishing will reinstate me as a slightly more credible Chef!