A long time ago, in 1999 or 2000, I wrote a story for a local alternative weekly paper about online literary magazines. I’d link to it, but the paper folded some years back, and its website folded even before the print version did.
It’s hard to remember now, but back then, there was not much stuff on the web. I had a list of links on my website, and it was a short list. You’d click and click, and sometimes you wouldn’t really get anywhere. I was always looking for new things to read online, because I was working as an office temp, and I was a very bad office temp, and one thing I found were a lot of literary magazines, or bits of magazines, and I got to wondering about them.
Literary magazines sell for maybe $8-$12 (or so I recollect — it’s been awhile since I bought one). They are not and never have been money-making ventures. Few pay their writers in anything more than copies, and most are supported by academic institutions. But they are places that you read and submit to if you aspire to be a writer of a certain sort. (I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that Dan Brown did not get his start by submitting stories to The Georgia Review.) Anyway. I was interested in how these online ventures operated, and so I interviewed some of them, wondering if any had found a better way to make money online.
The answer, briefly, was no.
A few places were trying to charge a small amount of money for stories. A few others gave everything away. Most were somewhere in between, and the same is true of most of those that survive today.
I was reminded of all this while reading in the New York Times about media outlets considering (yet again) charging for content online. Aside from wondering how Rupert Murdoch gets anyone to take the words “quality journalism” seriously when they come from his mouth, I found myself wondering again what kind of effect such paywalls would have. And I also found myself thinking, you know, having a paywall on a given site actually doesn’t always mean that you can’t get the content for free. Actually, if you have a library card (as we are always telling people), you can get all this and more via databases for free! The difference, of course, is that you have to do a lot more clicking. And you can’t make a direct link to an article, or if you can, you can’t be sure that someone else will be able to get to that article, because their library may have a different deal with EBSCO, or they may get that source through ProQuest, or whatever.
I’m not sure how this would work, but it seems to me a pity that libraries can’t redirect the thousands and thousands of dollars they pay database vendors to the journals and newspapers and magazines that supply those vendors in the first place, and then offer a sort of universal subscription to anyone with a library card. I don’t have any figures on this, of course, so I have no way of knowing if it would even help shore up magazines and newspapers — but anything, I figure, has got to be better than what we have now.