At the heart of former Saturday Night/Harper's editor Paul Tough's new Web-based magazine Open Letters -- www.openletters.net -- is a page called The Delivery.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more concise argument against online publishing, at least in its current form, than the one found on this page. Stephen King may want to check this out.
For all the advantages of publishing a magazine online -- immediacy, unparalleled editorial creativity and a potentially massive readership -- the fact remains that reading off a computer screen can be torturous. Your eyes hurt and it's hard to follow along closely.
Smooth delivery Tough's latest project tackles that dilemma head on. In many ways, the magazine is as much about the delivery as what's being presented.
The sequel to the Canadian Letters section he introduced in Saturday Night, Open Letters is a daily magazine of "first-person journalism" where writers tell personal stories in the form of letters. The dispatches, as well as Tough's daily editorials, are posted on the site Monday to Friday, but it's on Sunday that things get really interesting.
Each Sunday, the week's letters are bundled together and e-mailed to subscribers as an Adobe .pdf file. The bundle is cleanly designed and easy to read on the screen, but its dozen or so pages can also be printed off and lugged around like a regular magazine. That's a crucial step in Web publishing, an intelligent meshing of content and design.
It has also created a strong counterpoint to the confessional first-person blathering that the Web has unleashed in the last few years.
"We definitely wanted to explore a kind of first-person journalism that is not just diary spewing," Tough explains from his L.A. base.
"I tend to think of this magazine not as a collection of letters, but as a collection of direct, immediate, intimate first-person journalism. I've chosen the letter form mostly as a device -- to keep writers in the first person and in the present, to keep them honest."
Evolution planned Despite his reservations about online publishing, Tough plans to keep delivering those first-person stories via the Web. He insists that the .pdf model is simply an experiment, and that mode of delivery could evolve in the future.
"You could argue that Open Letters is not strictly an online publication," he reasons. "I think more than half of our readers are probably reading on paper. It just happens to be paper that they buy and feed into their printers.
"What I love about electronic publishing is the immediacy and the flexibility -- I can try something new in one week's issue, include a question to readers with the e-mail I send out, get a lot of immediate responses and make adjustments for the next week's issue. I couldn't do that in print."
Yet while Open Letters will remain online, it won't always be free. "We're going the indie film route, working for cheap and maxing out credit cards," he laughs -- funding is a must.
With any luck, the 1,000 or so free subscribers Tough has gathered since late June will be willing to shell out for good writing.
"I'm thinking $20 a year, which is about 50 cents an issue," he states.
"I feel like subscribers right now are paying for their subscriptions by being guinea pigs in this experiment. Fortunately, the guinea pigs aren't shy about writing me and telling me what I should change."