The cover is alive

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The Web is dead. Or at least Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, has stated that the Web is dead. And by the Web, he doesn’t mean the Internet, he means HTML. And actually he only means the free parts of HTML. And actually just the free parts that are also indexed by Google. That is the Web that is dying. Oh, right, and dying just means being eclipsed by other digital transmissions. Got it? That is Wired’s cover story: The reason this matters is because this imminent death of the Web is a loss of freedom; it is the end of the creation-based, anyone-can-contribute, non-corporate-controlled part of the Internet.

It has been covered at length, online, how the Web is not dead. Sarcastic tweets about the dying Web were propagated by the hundreds; blogs shouted their complaints about the hyperbole, bringing commenters’ sagacious wisdom into the fight. In short, the Web erupted in lively response before subscribers even received the magazine.

Wired’s September 2010 edition with its toxic orange-red cover and stark black Helvetica text (“The Web is dead.”) arrived on my doorstep days after the digital response calmed. The cover story itself is broken into two halves: Anderson’s, on white, explaining that the Web is dying, and freelance journalist Michael Wolff’s, set in parallel on red, explaining why this is supposedly happening. The format is nearly identical to the Web version, though online readers don’t have to locate page 118 to read the article and then complete a 38-page jump to finish it. (The conclusions of both stories are set as solid blocks of text across from ads for air-purifiers and digital scales.)
But the pain and delay of reading this story in print is hardly worth it — the real value is in Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle’s published debates and the discussion in the dreaded (and presently heaving its last death throes) blogosphere are the real value. The cover is a gimmick and an incredibly successful conversation starter.

And so could be another cover this month. Time magazine, that venerable American institution, put author Jonathan Franzen on the cover of the Aug. 23 issue. If his name doesn’t immediately bring you to tears and Forum tirades, it is probably because, like I mentioned, he is an author. A writer of words. A filler of paper books. He is also, as Time has reminded us, the first writer to grace their cover in a decade, the last being Stephen King in March 2000.

Franzen is accompanied by, as popular book blog The Millions put it, “the Franzen headline: ‘Great American Novelist’ — a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering.”

Now it is certainly unclear if Time is the arbiter of great novelists in this country, but Franzen’s The Corrections won the National Book Award and was a New York Times Best Book of The Year, a Pulitzer finalist, and so nearly an Oprah Book Club pick (he declined) that maybe he deserves the title. But however these choices are made, Time has decided to support Franzen, because beyond their declining circulation numbers, they are aware people do not need to read the magazine to see the cover. The cover is free; the cover is viewable on newsstands; the cover is copied and pasted across the Internet. And whether it was a slow news week or they thought Franzen would be good competition against the flag-covered Newsweek, Time is supporting real literature — simply ushering Americans to notice that Franzen’s new novel Freedom comes out in just over a week, and we should be ready to promote it to the top of our autumn reading lists.

That is, if we even have reading lists anymore, because while Wired didn’t mention it this month, print is also dead. In fact very many things are dead: Literature is certainly dead, but Apple also died over a decade ago; Silicon Valley is dead; Microsoft is clearly dying; Google Wave is actually dead; dozens of smartphones have killed dozens of other smartphones and all of them have killed the iPhone; Facebook is dead; privacy is dead because of Facebook; and journalism is dead. And these journalists and editors who continue to practice their dead or dying art (including us) continue to lament the death of things which have never really died at all.

Time, decried by many as a dying magazine, has decided to use its cover to highlight, for whatever reasons, a reasonably good American author. Hopefully, some of us will actually go pick up his upcoming novel — I certainly will. Wired has decided to use its cover to start a firestorm, backing its argument up with some particularly strange semantics but regardless receiving a lot of attention. And in both cases, apart from seemingly every institution we know in society being dead, two media organizations have proven the magazine cover is still alive.