The press release rocketed across the wires. Nearly instantaneously every gossip and celebrity rag from Miami to LA weighed in on the announcement. Twitter was …. well, a-twitter with the hype. Even NPR felt compelled to comment. Hugh Hefner, the demigod of publishing, the man who has an uncanny knack for turning hometown nobodies like Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy and Marilyn Monroe into household names virtually overnight by simply coaxing them out of their panties, the man who single-handedly changed the (ahem) face of the magazine industry by aiming his camera further south — yes, that man in the smoking jacket and silk pajamas — revealed to the world that the June, 2010 issue of Playboy magazine would boldly go where no centerfold had gone before.
Let me repeat that. In bolded font and with multiple exclamation marks:
This is is what print publishing has come to? 3D Boobies on Parade? Really?
There have been exponential technical advances in recent years that have allowed books and magazines to be printed at a fraction of what it cost publishers only ten years ago. One-off magazines featuring gorgeous photos of dust storms in Australia can go from concept to printed in-your-hand reality in less than 24 hours (thanks to on-demand services like MagCloud). And the best Playboy can come up with is 3D?
Have we all sunk so low? What’s next? Where can we possibly go from here? “Playboy : The Pop-Up Edition”? Or “Playboy : Now With Scratch-n-Sniff.” Really? Really?? Is it only a matter of time before an actual Playmate comes shrink-wrapped with each issue, delivered discretely to our door for our “reading pleasure” (nudge-nudge, wink-wink)?
To be sure, this was a publicity stunt of the highest order. But the need for such a stunt speaks volumes about an industry in decline. Playboy has seen it’s readership slashed in half in just 4 short years. It’s bleeding money at an astonishing rate. And what makes all of this the more worrisome is that it is happening to a publication that is known the world over, has brand recognition that rivals that of Coca Cola, and has a long history of publishing really good content. (I’m talking about the world-class fiction and interviews here, folks).
If Playboy can’t make it work in this environment, who can?
There used to be a time when a gentlemanly reader would turn to Playboy because Playboy delivered. It was the complete package. For the discerning bachelor with wads of cash to blow there were articles on picking the best bourbon, previews of coming fall fashions by the best designers, and drool-inducing photo layouts of cars whose lines rivaled those of any centerfold. There were interviews with important heads of state bookended by racy yet funny cartoons that reminded you to not take life too seriously. And the fiction — did I mention the fiction? Where else could you read original works by Phillip K. Dick or Gabriel García Marquez or Vladimir Nabokov while surreptitiously ogling the buxom blonde on the opposite page?
Playboy offered it all.
And then the Internet appeared.
And suddenly we had more than we could ever want. And it was free! And it was even more discrete than the black plastic wrapper cuddled around Playboy because in the privacy of our own home, hunched over a computer screen in the dark, not even the mailman would know what we were viewing … err … reading.
Granted, most of the content that now floods across our screens may be a trailer-court cousin to the posh fare Playboy has offered up over the years. But some of it is actually better. Flickr aficionados can find gorgeous automotive photo spreads that rival anything Playboy has done recently. A few keystrokes in Google and you have several thousand designer homepages, product reviews, and up-to-the-minute guides on men’s fashion. And let’s not forget the fiction. There are literally a thousand great literary magazines out there (including Pif Magazine) that can give you what you need.
But what about the pictures of beautiful women? you ask. Seriously? If you as an adult between the ages of 18 and 40 can’t rattle off a list at least half-a-dozen online sites that will satisfy whatever pervy little fetish you secretly harbor, then you really can’t call yourself a card-carrying member of the modern age, can you?
No — the future of publishing is not 3D centerfolds. The future of publishing has yet to be written.
The only thing we know for certain at this time, at this moment, is that old-media — that grand oligarchy typified by high-rise towers stuffed with high-flying über-editors and legions of high-minded (albeit marginally compensated) interns and associates in cities like New York, Chicago and Hong Kong — is undergoing a dramatic change. To say it’s in its death-throws would be a simplification. This is akin to watching a jaguar transmogrify into a rabble of butterflies.
Yes — the only thing we know for certain is that nothing is no longer as we knew it. That — and that print, apparently, has finally outlived its usefulness.