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Saturday Review: why it failed -- and succeeded

After the news came that the Saturday Review had suspended publication, friends sought to console me. Even though it is now six years since I had any direct connection with the magazine, the Saturday Review has been so deep in my bloodstream that I can no more be detached from the effects of its passing than I would be at the loss of a child.

There will be speculation, of course, over the reasons for the demise. Some people, inevitably, will lament the fact that there aren't enough readers in the United States to support a major cultural publication. Yet circulation alone isn't the answer. For a long time, Saturday Review had the top circulation in its field. Even at the end, its subscription list was close to 500,000.

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What has happened, I believe, is that the publishing economics for a serious magazine have become unfavorable to the point of being punitive. To begin with, a magazine, unlike other products, is sold to the consumer for less than the cost of manufacture. The advertiser is expected to make up the difference. In recent years, however, the gap between production costs and reader income has become so great that the amount of advertising required to sustain a serious periodical has become unattainably high. Since advertisers can reach readers through television at far lower costs than through serious magazines, where even a half-million circulation is considered minuscule, the incentive to go into cultural print is not very great.

If it is asked what accounts for the high cost of producing a magazine, we have to look beyond the usual inflationary factors. Begin with the method of reaching readers. A periodical such as the Saturday Review cannot expect to command newsstand space against the pressure of magazines carrying peep-show covers and extravagant headlines. A serious journal has to look to the postal delivery system for its primary distribution. And mailing expenses are little short of devastating.

In the early years of this nation's history, magazines and newpapers were considered part of the country's circulatory system, along with interstate roads , and the postal rates were nominal. The development of subscription magazines was largely the product of this low-cost delivery system.

About 20 years ago or so, however, government postal policy toward periodicals radically changed. As a result, it now costs about 12 times as much to send a magazine through the mails as it did less than a generation ago. No other factor involved in publishing a magazine, even allowing for inflation, has seen such an increase. When you take into account the fact that a magazine also has to use the mails for obtaining and renewing its subscribers, you can see how the economics of publishing a magazine can be unhinged by present-day postal costs.

Obviously, these are only a few factors involved in the difficulties confronting magazines today. But they do serve to illustrate the precarious existence of the serious journal.

Whatever success the Saturday Review may have had was directly connected to its respect for the place of ideas and the arts in the life of the mind. This emphasis takes on special significance in the light of the sleaziness that has infected the national culture in recent years. There seems to be a fierce competition, especially in entertainment and publishing, to find ever-lower rungs on the ladder of taste. At the core of this competition is the apparent notion that intimacy doesn't require privacy, that genuine love is an irrelevance, and that sex is a toy, to be played with and discarded when interest turns elsewhere.

The annihilation of taste has not spared language. There is the curious notion that freedom is somehow synonymous with gutter jargon. At one time people who worked in the arts would boast to one another about their ability to communicate ideas that attacked social injustice and brutality. Now some of them seem to feel that they have struck a blow for humanity if only they can use enough four-letter words. The trouble with this kind of verbiage is not just that it is offensive but that it is trite to the point of being threadbare.

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The decline of language has been marked by a corresponding rise of incoherence. The words ''you know'' or ''I mean'' are strewn like loose gravel through everyday communication. I don't believe in raising taxes, but I would happily support a bill that would tax the bejeebers out of people each time they use ''you know'' or ''I mean.''

The debasement of language not only reflects but produces a retreat from civility. The slightest disagreement has become an occasion for violent reactions. Television has educated an entire generation of Americans to believe that the normal way of reacting to a slight is by punching someone in the face.

On every hand, there is evidence that people are losing the art of reasonable discourse. My friends in Congress tell me that in recent years the tone of letters from constituents has drastically changed. At one time, most letters tried to state a position reasonably. Today, people seem to feel that denunciation is the standard form.

My hope, from my earliest days at the Saturday Review, was that the magazine would help to develop a language that transcends force. That was why SR was one of the first journals to call attention to the implications of nuclear weapons. We didn't think we could keep the planet from blowing up in our faces unless the language of force gave way to ideas that could institutionalize the peace. To suppose that a nation could detach itself from moral dictates and yet remain free of violence was as irrational as imagining that an individual could live in anarchy and yet be secure.

Some of the things for which the magazine campaigned over the years are showing progress. Around the entire world today, people are coming to realize that they need not acquiesce in their own destruction. They insist that the conditions be created that will make it unnecessary for them to kill or be killed. They do not believe that they need be doomed by computer forecasts of a barren world. And they are ready for the leadership that will summon them to the cause of a rational collective existence.

Humanity's greatest problem has never been the absence of answers to complex situations. Its greatest problem has been the absence of will to attack problems. I could think of no higher function for the Saturday Review than to liberate people from feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. Progess begins with the belief that what is necessary is possible. Hope is a practical reality because it supplies the energy for converting intangibles into tangibles.

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