Volume 1 - Issue 6 - Editorial

In an interview in this issue, John Wyver compares the conditions of printed magazine production and the potential offered by publication on the World Wide Web. If we remain a little sceptical about what he says – though we wish him well – it is because the printed magazine world is not the way he describes it. And this has a lot to do with why there has been such a long gap between the last issue of Vertigo and this one.

Wyver says that magazine culture is remarkably diverse, and an essentially commercial system manages to support a very broad range of publications and views. But this is not true if you look at the range of magazines on film and TV culture available on the shelves of your average newsagent. What you find is mostly populist monthlies, fixated on Hollywood, driven by advertising, and basically in hock to the distributors’ publicity systems. If you’re in the right place, like the centre of London, you also get various trade publications. But you have to go to specialist bookstores like those at the NFT or the ICA to find the little magazines like Vertigo or 20/20.

Sales from these shops are far too low to allow magazines like these to pay their way – we depend on subscriptions. The small size of the grants we have secured in order to publish has allowed us neither to advertise nor employ part-time help. Nevertheless, here we are, with our sixth issue.

Actually, the problem is not so much producing the magazine, but as with independent film and video, it’s distribution. Book shops are often almost as reluctant as newsagents to sell independent magazines. It is always the voice on the edge which gets pushed out, and the growth of the media does not alleviate the situation but rather the opposite. Granville Williams points out in this issue that the analogy between the promise of hundreds of digital TV channels and the shelves of shops like W.H. Smith, stocked with specialist titles covering everything from scuba diving to soft porn, is unfortunate, since early this year, faced with a profit slump, the high-street giant pulled almost 400 low-selling magazines from their shelves. In fact for the past decade the market for the independent press as a whole has contracted severely. Serious and important titles, like The Listener and New Society, have disappeared, while purely commercial magazines, both general and niche-market, catering for mass audiences, have mushroomed. In the film world, Sight and Sound has maintained its position only through huge subsidy and a dive downmarket, while smaller, less glossy publications (like Afterimage and Framework) have suffered the loss of their grants from the BFI and elsewhere, and consequently folded.

It might be argued, perhaps, that magazines shouldn’t need subsidies and grants. If they don’t have enough readers there’s clearly no market for them and they don’t deserve to survive. Thus go the simplistic platitudes of ‘free market’ dogma. But in an economy in which print costs are high and promotion costs even higher, you’d have to attract very large numbers of readers in order merely to break even, let alone make a profit, and anyway, Vertigo isn’t meant to be a rival to Empire. As for making up the shortfall through advertising, it’s a case of ‘to them that have shall be given’. It costs money to get advertising, and we can’t even pay a part-time administrative assistant (only printing and design is paid for).

Anyone trying to run a small magazine like Vertigo rapidly discovers how the market really works, and it’s a million miles removed from the picture painted by the ‘free market’ ideologues. It may be efficient at delivering what a lot of people need a lot of the time, but it’s hopeless when it comes to what only some people want. Behind the apparent ‘freedom’ of the market there lurks a hidden hand which favours some customers and products more than others. The British press, with its prohibitively high entry costs, its standards depressed by intense competition for readers, its over-dependence on advertising revenues, and the disgracefully narrow and biased range of views on offer in its pages, is the perfect (or rather, imperfect) example of what happens when a medium of communication is left to the tender mercies of market forces. Large numbers of people, especially young ones, are disenfranchised by the market, denied a readable daily paper because the market doesn’t deem them worth catering for. Other countries in Europe, like France, Sweden and the Netherlands, employ financial mechanisms to ensure that in the interests a well-informed population, there is a diverse press. There is, in short, a belief that the market cannot be left to itself to ensure that everyone is catered for, minorities as well as majorities (and people who belong to both at the same time).

In this belief, it is unhealthy and unacceptable, in a country which considers itself democratic, that brute market forces should make it impossible to cater to minority interests. As long as this is the case, that’s why subsidy in one form or another will always be necessary for a publication like this one. This seems obvious to us – we only lab our the point because it appears that good economic sense has been drowned out by 17 years of dogma and gobbledygook. You had better believe us when we tell you that if you had to pay the real – i.e. unsubsidised, ‘market’ price for this magazine, then you wouldn’t do so – however much the contents appealed to you.

The promise offered by the Internet is no substitute. It represents a highly contested expansion of the communications media but with quite different characteristics from print, which it cannot possibly replace. In fact, the media have never worked that way. Television and video have not supplanted cinema and film, any more than, in music, electric guitars or pianos have supplanted the acoustic instruments. Doubtless the public experience of the big screen has been transformed by the little one, but it remains a major cultural attraction in every country in the world. It retains its power to provoke great passion, get involved in politics, and impress us with its visionary dimensions, as several writers in these pages attest.

In the States, where Internet access is both cheaper and more widespread, the independent journal Jump Cut asked their readers and writers last year if they thought they should move to electronic publication. They didn’t; they still want the feel of printed paper. For our part, we haven’t even considered the idea, although we have decided to follow their example and intend to start a page on the Internet.

Meanwhile, you can reach us by email at vertigo@dial.pipex.com.