Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a group of like-minded individuals wanted to found a movement, they usually started by founding a magazine. The Atlantic Monthly was the brainchild of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Boston luminaries who wanted to create a place to nurture American writers and, more broadly, an American voice in cultural affairs. Other, less distinguished publications were mouthpieces for various political agendas. America was founded in 1909 in part to combat the influence of anti-Catholic journals that were popular at the time.
How things have changed. Unless your name is Weinstein or Winfrey, magazines are no longer the medium of choice for aspiring tastemakers. There are plenty of other, much less expensive options available, the obvious example being the Internet, which enables individuals to publish with little cost and no editorial interference.
These developments have left traditional magazines in an awkward position. How are publishers to capitalize on the new medium without losing the subscription and advertising dollars that are the bread and butter of the business? (No publication this side of The Wall Street Journal has solved this dilemma yet.) An equally important question is how to use the Web to attract new readers and further a publication’s influence.
Over the last few months, we at America have been discussing these questions extensively. Like many other magazines, we’re trying to find ways to grow on the Web, to include more online content and to reach younger readers. Yet we want to do it in a way that is consistent with the values of the magazine.
America developed a Web site in 2001 to showcase material from the printed publication. Since then, other publications have added online content to supplement printed material: author interviews, articles from the archives, podcasts and, inevitably, blogs.
Now we are undergoing a similar transformation. This spring America will launch its new Web site, complete with “Web-only” material. The challenge before us is to enter the fray without compromising our mission, while remaining relevant and interesting. America rightfully takes pride in exploring questions of religion, culture and politics with charity and prudence. Unfortunately, these are not words that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the Web.
As any reader of blogs (short for Weblogs) knows, online debate can sometimes become quite coarse. Freed from the constraints of editors and the niceties required of face-to-face discussions, bloggers can take potshots at will. It would be a shame, however, if blogs were dismissed en bloc because of the excesses of some of their contributors. At a time when large media corporations dominate the cultural marketplace, we should be pleased that a form of discourse that is both independent and varied is thriving.
It is also important to remember that blogs are not the only show in town. There is a great deal of excellent online journalism out there, and we hope to be part of it. Sites like Arts & Letters Daily (aldaily.com) highlight books or reviews that may have escaped notice. Wordswithoutborders.org features original translations of foreign literature. Slate.com, one of the premiere online journals, explores important political and cultural questions using the language of the Web. Slate’s Book Club, for example, takes the conventions of e-mail and applies them to the art of book reviewing.
An expanded online book club is just one of the innovations we hope to introduce this spring. Other possible additions include podcasts and video meditations on Scripture. (We have already begun experimenting with video, thanks to associate editor Jim McDermott, S.J.)
The Web offers us a way to connect to other Catholic institutions around the globe. Here we will be following the lead of Mirada Global (www.miradaglobal.com), a Web site based in South America that features selections from the continent’s various Jesuit publications. We hope that priests, religious and laity from around the world will be part of our online community at www.americamagazine.org. We want to provide a forum for Catholic institutions and scholars to reach educated and curious Catholics.
In 1909, the founding editors of America chose the dominant medium of their day to convey their message. The challenges they faced are not dissimilar to our own. “True to its name as a Catholic review,” John Wynne, S.J., the magazine’s first editor, wrote, “America will be cosmopolitan not only in contents but also in spirit.” Today we are seeking to bring that same spirit to the sometimes rowdy, but rarely dull world of the Web. We hope you’ll join us.