The Future of the Newsmagazine
Allen Mikaelian, January 2013
I started this speculative article at a time of renewed discussions about the future of periodical print publications, occasioned by the sudden announcement that Newsweek was abandoning print and moving entirely online. Historians have also been moving, ever more confidently, to online-only publications, both as writers and readers. AHA Past President William Cronon has reflected in these pages about the demise of print and what it means for the profession and its practitioners.
Is the future of Perspectives on History an exclusively digital one? Will the print version of Perspectives, which just celebrated its 50th year, soon succumb to its digital sibling, Perspectives Online?
We recently queried our readers about their preferences, and they prefer print. Clearly and unambiguously—it's print. We hear this not only from those who regard the world of digital publishing warily. The readers of Perspectives are not luddites. Even those who filled out the survey online had a clear preference for print. And since our members tell us that Perspectives on History is the single most important tangible benefit they receive from membership, the print version will happily persist.
This wasn't exactly what we expected, but it makes perfect sense if we think about the significant, and exciting, place held by this unusual publication. We understand this preference for print to be a reflection of how readers use the newsmagazine, and what it is for. Perspectives readers tend to browse. They flip through pages, scan some articles quickly and read others thoroughly, look for news about their colleagues, and gather details about what the AHA has been up to. Our readers enjoy the regular appearance of Perspectives in their mailboxes, not just in their inboxes.
Still, there's another side to Perspectives that we are eager to develop, and which is best developed online. Our readers might initially consume the newsmagazine in print, but they go on to use the contents online. They share articles with colleagues by e-mailing or tweeting links. History departments link to our contents pages via their Facebook pages. And bloggers carry on extended and in-depth conversations about ideas and articles published in Perspectives, conversations we are happy to continue through the AHA Today blog.
Ethan Kleinberg, writing in the December 2012 issue, suggested that the future of the academic journal should be as a hub at the center of a network of social media. Perspectives is not an academic journal, but its mission is best met by looking toward this model. Perspectives is a meeting place for the many professions and functions within the discipline, a place that acknowledges, through an inclusive publication program, that historians are teachers, writers, researchers, curators, archivists, all of the above, and much more besides. We ask our writers, who are often very specialized, to write for nonspecialists, and we strive for clarity and accessibility. Perspectives on History has, under the guidance of the exceptionally sensitive and adroit previous editor, Pillarisetti Sudhir, evolved to be a publication like no other—a forum that captures the amazing breadth of our discipline.
Social media and a robust online presence means that this meeting place will become increasingly dynamic. Our readers will continue to learn, in the pages of Perspectives, from experts outside their specialty and profession, but will also have increasingly diverse ways to contribute their own voices to the discussion. Several options are available now—from tweets to @AHAhistorians to stamped-and-addressed letters to the editor—and other options are in development. As the conversations sparked by Perspectives play out in diverse strands, it becomes a function of our editors to facilitate by collecting and drawing attention to as many voices as we can, whether they appear in our own social media spaces or other far-flung corners of the online universe.
The online space of Perspectives on History will grow and adapt to become an integral part of the hub that the print magazine has defined so well. We will continue to publish online versions of the articles we put in print while simultaneously taking advantage of opportunities only available in the digital space. Throughout October 2012, we featured AHA Roundtables on the election-year debates. Historians weighed in, not as pundits, but as historians, bringing much-needed context and perspective to the candidates' positions and attacks. We will continue to host roundtables on a variety of current topics in Perspectives Online as digital edition specials, in a format that allows us flexibility of timing and length. Whereas the print version of Perspectives is a space for conversations within the discipline, the AHA Roundtables show that the online space can open up conversations between those in the discipline and the general public, and highlight the importance and utility of how historians think and what they value.
Roundtables are just one example of how we can use the online outlet to do things that aren't as feasible in print. In the coming months, look for more multimedia in Perspectives' online space and more opportunities for the kinds of conversation that can only happen online.
The future of the discipline will be largely defined by the blurring of lines between subdisciplines, as well as between professions. Moving forward, many of us will have to stray even further from own comfortable specialty. To do this well, we will have to communicate well, across conceptual and institutional barriers. Perspectives on History has been ideally positioned to be the place where this communication happens, and it will continue to evolve, as history evolves, to become ever more conversational, dynamic, and responsive.
Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.