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All Things Considered

Nov 16, 2013 BY NPR Staff

Publishing Magazines For An 'Ambidextrous' Generation

The latest publication of the literary journal The American Reader is its anniversary edition.
The latest publication of the literary journal The American Reader is its anniversary edition.

Magazine publishers continue to uneasily navigate print and digital worlds. Harper's Magazine publisher John MacArthur shared his perspective on the importance of online pay walls in the magazine's October issue. All Things Considered speaks with MacArthur, MediaFinder's Trish Hagood and the co-founder of year-old literary magazine The American Reader about the changing publishing industry. You can hear all of these conversations at the audio link above.

One year ago, The American Reader jumped headfirst into the literary publishing world. The monthly print and digital magazine features new fiction, poetry, criticism and essays.

What were they thinking?

Co-founder and editor-in-chief Uzoamaka Maduka, who's in her mid-20s, says she heard that question a lot. But she has an answer: Maduka and co-founder Jac Mullen wanted to "bring the literary conversation back to the center of American cultural discourse," especially among millennials.

"The generation which I'm a part of, when it comes to technology, we're ambidextrous," she tells Arun Rath, host of All Things Considered. "We like to have choices between print or digital. And I don't think it really profits anyone to be led by the nose by that sort of hysterical reaction."

That "hysteria" she's referring to is the notion that print is dead and that readers' attention spans have shrunk, so content needs to be "shorter, more accessible — 'accessible' being a buzzword for dumbing things down."

"We felt that the opposite was the case. Among our generation, we felt people were hungry for more sophisticated writing, for deeper engagement with the topics of the day," Maduka says.

She says "bad advice" over the past 10 years has had publishers shying away from that.

"And the readers have really suffered. And I think it's up to discerning editors right now to bring us back to where we need to be," she says.

But editing is one thing, and making money is another. The American Reader has avoided an online pay wall in order to attract new readers.

"For us — because we're just starting out — we're more inclined to give more of our writing basically away for free because we want people to get to know what we're doing," she says.

Maduka says digital and print content are really extensions of one another, rather than different "versions" of the same thing.

There is a lot of labor that goes behind every piece, though, and giving it for free online "devalues" the writing in a way, she says. The magazine is paying its writers, but "it's a constant sort of shadow on the work that we're doing — if it continues to be devalued at this rate, it will become harder and harder to do so."

Still, she is optimistic: "People are going back to traditional forms. People are asking for the editor again. People are asking for smart writing again. And smart writing, smart editors require money."

One year in, The American Reader has new partnerships, including with Barnes & Noble and Salon.com, and about 1,100 print subscribers — with high hopes of a larger circulation in the coming years.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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