3.11.2011

The Newspaper Spoon

This began as a response to a blog post regarding the quality of climbing media; specifically the post referred to 'online' climbing media and was quickly lambasted in a surprisingly catatonic fashion by none other than senior Rock & Ice editor Andrew Bisharat. I realized fairly quickly that not only was my own vector of commentary somewhat off-topic, but that it also had too much magnitude, for better or for worse, to fit tastefully into the comments field of any blog.

Climbing media is, like all media, in the throes of a sweeping transitional phase as more and more websites pick up the torch originally carried by print publications and run with it with varying degrees of success. Success, of course, is almost always measured by commercial viability, which may or may not hinge on things like good writing, fresh and relevant content and, well, actual journalism. Mostly mere ghostly reflections of their respective newsstand magazines, websites like Climbing and Rock & Ice are difficult to evaluate independently from their parent magazines. In this vein, I thought it relevant to look to some of the back issues of these two publications, mostly from the late 80's to mid 90's, to see what the ancestry of modern magazines and therefore websites might tell us about their state of affairs today.

Having been gifted with a large number of 'classic' (read: older) issues of both Climbing and Rock and Ice and having cycled them through as bathroom literature over the past year or two, I've noticed a few differences that may be of interest. The typical erroneous argument that I've both made and heard is that magazines 'used to' have more relevance, less ads, better writing, etc. etc. etc. My analysis is that they often did have better writing in the late 80's-early 90's. They did have more mini-guides and other nuts-and-bolts climbing content. However, they also have copious amounts of ads and filler. Older additions have plenty of press about new and 'cutting edge' ascents; in fact, the oldest that I have of Climbing actually have a rather exhaustive list of ascents (including those in the 5.10-5.11 range) at many of the world's well-known venues.

These differences are somewhat tantamount to semantics. Layouts change over time but many of the same things are present throughout the 30 years of publications I'm able to examine, admittedly somewhat cursorily as I've read through them all in the past. Advertising has certainly been at a saturation point for the period in question, although an argument could be made that the older ads are less exploitative than the newer (small gear start-ups vs Subaru); the ubiquitous 'filler' content, such as blurbs, letters, etc., also has its place in almost any publication. The real differences are a little more esoteric, so bear with me as I attempt to weave a web of metaphysics around climbing magazines.

The physicality of any piece of literature is something nearly lost both to the turbid seas of online content and the advent of the Kindle. A problematic but useful analogy could be drawn between the physical attributes of a website versus a magazine and say, a drugstore pulp fiction novel versus an original folio edition of Shakespeare bound in tanned human skin. Let's assume that the second example is slightly more enlightening in terms of tactile nuances, but you get the idea. In any case, newer climbing magazines are thinner than older ones; this is true for both publications in question. The paper employed is cheaper, the covers glossier and less resistant to the abuse of handling. In fact, the entire package feels cheaper in the hands. Cost of materials bears relevance here, but not nearly so much as the transition from paper to digital: the print copy literally loses its essence to online publication. One can certainly pick up a magazine and measure that loss quite easily.

The content is a more nuanced problem. Relevance is too multidimensional a term for evaluative use. An article about Joshua Tree from 1992 (which I used in my previous blog post) has more relevance for me because I like climbing in Joshua Tree. An article about cutting edge bouldering in Colorado has less relevance to me because I could care less about cutting edge bouldering in Colorado. Perhaps a better evaluative tool is the question of quality: how incisive is the prose of the writer? How does her sense of journalism come to bear on the format of her article and the weight of her argument if one is present? As always, each magazine is a grab bag of prose of varying quality. While climbing magazines are not Harper's or the New Yorker (and needn't be), many of the older magazines feature writing that goes beyond its content, more so than the newer publications. Greg Child, a writer and multifaceted climber from Australia who moved to Seattle in the late 80's (I believe; don't quote me on that) brought an intensely entertaining humor noir to the table; his hilariously deprecating articles on everything from expeditions to Everest to sport climbing in the Blue Mountains of Australia strike a chord for me about the paradox of all climbing: absolute seriousness and absolute lack thereof. John Long, who is thankfully still featured occasionally in Climbing magazine, has been a titan of forceful, dynamic climbing content for 40 years. His feature articles delve deeply into the core of climbing: the personal relationships and unique motivations that drive each and every one of us to pursue this strange, wonderful and tragic activity. There has been and will continue to be, plenty of great writing in the 'climbing' genre and a factual article can be just as lively as an article of a more personal, reflective nature.

To be fair, apples must be compared to apples, of course. In this case, I'm thinking of one type of more literary feature article, which can be a chimera of information and opinion and another more straight-forward informative feature, which, at least on the surface, appears factual and unadorned. To wit are examples that are in front of me that are absolutely not an apples-to-apples comparison: two Washington climbing area features in Climbing #279 (one written by a friend of mine, Kelly Sheridan) and a series of articles in Rock & Ice #46 written by Jim Bridwell, John Long, Jeff Long, Ron Kauk, Russ Walling, Jerry Moffatt etc. All articles in question contain historical information about areas, but in different formats: the Washington articles are entertaining but factual accounts about specific areas while those about Yosemite are textural meditations on an entire era of climbing.

By nature, it would be unfair to compare these directly. Rather, I'm interested in the bigger picture: the magazines as a whole. R & I #46 has the aforementioned personal narratives as well as guides to areas relevant to the topic: Yosemite and Tuolomne. It also tackles an issue important to the era (rappel bolted sport routes vs ground-up ascents; ironically this conflict is an absolutely ubiquitous dead horse nowadays) and offers an interview with Ron Kauk as meditation on that issue. As a whole, the content is well-grouped and fills an entire issue. In contrast, the Washington articles fight to fill space amongst articles about topics as various as Zion ice climbing, V15 bouldering, Castleton Spire and Devils Tower. Perhaps a historical issue on free climbing in Washington State is less hallowed than the greats of the 70's in Yosemite filling a magazine with their prose, but might I suggest a different format: the area specific articles such as Kelly's (about Leavenworth bouldering), well-written and fine in their own right, combined with a number of other more narrative articles written by a variety of elder Washington activists, enriching the content with a more appropriate context?

It's hard to discuss this without a sense of 'washing out'; by that I'm referring to the tendency to conflate too many different issues into one argument, thus nullifying the argument. Thus, a gathering of my assertions so far:

-Advertising is at the same level as it used to be in mainstream climbing media; the advertising today tends to be from larger, more lucrative sources than before including some more exploitative sources such as automobile manufacturers.

-Filler content has and always will be present.

-The magazines differ greatly in their physicality: tactile aspects and apparent quality have changed significantly over the years, sometimes for the worse. There is also literally less content in the newer magazines as evidenced by the thinness of the publications.

-More unrelated content is placed side by side in newer magazines, often to the detriment of the publication as a whole. Good articles must compete side by side with completely unrelated information. Tone and format of writing has changed somewhat; often today's writing seems less reflective and more factual except in special 'sections' of the magazine dedicated to the former style.

My conclusions are flavored with a suspicion that some overarching force is at work here. I believe that force to be related to the ubiquity of information. One component of this is also the ubiquity of people. In the world of climbing, the latter has far-reaching implications: It was once easy to name the major areas of climbing development in the United States, at least those that were publicized; now any source of news is outgunned by the sheer number of climbers and venues and must filter as much as possible down to a reasonable level of content. Similarly, readers must filter constantly to find some compelling melody amidst the white noise of constant blogging and reporting.

Climbing has reached a point of schism whereby the old narratives have flooded out into a delta of informational tidbits having little coherence as a whole. An issue not at all incidental to this is the monetization of anything and everything possible, whereby magazines must adhere to certain standards of commercial viability. This is most certainly something that has altered the landscape of all media in the last 50 years. In terms of climbing media, it seems to have affected the selling points of climbing-related literature: what once was somewhat a venue for introspection and personal narrative is now a frenzied grab-and-go of sponsorship photography, excessive masturbation over the latest and greatest ascents and legitimate articles whose calls for attention are drowned by the cacophony of the rest.

In parallel, as has been stated in this excellent blog post on the topic, is the fact that there isn't any relevant progression in climbing: the old narrative is dying painfully and slowly on the pages of every magazine and in the HTML of every website while sentimentalists like myself look to the past for answers in 30 year old magazines. There is, of course, nothing good or bad about any of this; rather, in order to move forward into the 'post-send' era, climbing must continue to eat its own tail and implode, regaining some of that mass and momentum and then expand anew. If a fresh perspective exists it's unlikely to be a synthesis of the same old arguments and braggadocio.

For now, we must constantly ask ourselves the same question Burroughs asked us in the introduction to his Naked Lunch: "What are they feeding you on the end of that newspaper spoon?"

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing,
    maybe R + I should publish some articles from a different Andrew!!!

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  2. I'm reading mountaineering essays by John Muir, some re-reads, some new to me, as when he traveled in Alaska. He set some kind of standard for solo climbing, in hobnail boots, without ropes or gear, in landscapes that often don't exist any more. Wonder what he'd make of Yosemite Valley lately...

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