About three minutes ago, our lead developer flipped the switch (pushed the button? I’m not entirely sure how technology works) to begin selling subscriptions to the Print Edition of NSFWCORP.
As I wrote last week, the move into print is a huge step for us — possibly the most important thing we’ve done in our one year history. Definitely it’s the most labour intensive, and nerve-wracking. As you read these words, the availability of a new monthly news magazine (with jokes) has been greeted either with an avalanche of eager subscribers, rushing to sign up before our limited 5,000-copy run of issue one sells out… or a collective yawn of indifference proving that Tina Brown was right about the death of print.
I’ve already explained all of the reasons why print really isn’t dead, and why many of the media companies abandoning it are actually making an idiotic, cowardly mistake.
This post provides the “and yet…” to that argument.
This post explains why print publishing can be so frustrating that it makes you want to punch a wall.
This post describes why the Print Edition of NSFWCORP just got banned by every distributor in Las Vegas. Before we’ve published a single issue.
In the past decade, we’ve all become incredibly spoilt by the freedom afforded by online publishing. I’m not talking about conceptual freedoms like the ability to include multimedia in online articles (a freedom the musical greetings card industry has abused for years), nor am I talking about the freedom from a daily publishing schedule, something which has led to the scourge of “iterative journalism,” a process akin to throwing a kitten into the middle of a road and promising to come back later to carry it the rest of the way.
No, I mean the literal freedom — First Amendment and all that crap — to publish words and deliver them to an audience.
Whatever some activists may have you believe, speech on the Internet is incredibly free in the Western world. If speech is lawful, someone will host it. And even if it isn’t lawful, someone will host it. Proponents of the “Streisand effect” are frequently insufferable dicks, but they have reality on their side: The more someone tries to suppress a message, the more someone else will make it their mission to spread it.
Yesterday I was reminded that it doesn’t work that way in print.
We’d already been warned there might be problems getting the magazine printed in Vegas — the Greenspun Corporation owns almost all of the media in this town, and everyone is apparently wary of the risks of supporting even a startup rival. And, sure enough, of the half dozen printers we approached for quotes, only one even returned our calls.
Fortunately the one printer that did call back was the one we were most eager to work with. Not only does Creel print the Christian Science Monitor (making us virtuous by association — an almost literal halo effect), but they’re located just down the street from NSFWCORPHQ so we’re able to walk down to the gigantic presses churning out our magazine.
So all’s well that ends well, printer-wise. Now we just needed to find a distributor for the 1,000 copies we’d allocated for physical distribution in Las Vegas. We’re very proud to be based here in Sin City so we wanted to make sure the magazine was available around town — a simple matter of signing a contract with one of the three or four companies who control distribution across most of the city.
“Who are your advertisers?”
That was a slightly worrying question to hear from the first company we met with. The explanation even more so: “We can’t distribute anything that might conflict with our existing commercial deals.”
The first issue of NSFWCORP has no advertising at all, but we can’t absolutely guarantee that future issues won’t. And we certainly weren’t able to give our distributor approval over any future advertisers. As it turned out, this was a moot problem.
“Will there be any profanity?”
Maybe a little, but it’s in the context of…
“Oh, we won’t distribute profanity…”
It was the same story with the next distributor. And the next. Finally, yesterday afternoon, our last remaining option delivered their verdict: Without prior approval of both content and advertisers, no-one in Las Vegas would touch our magazine.
Yes, that Las Vegas. Sin City. The town whose main street is lined with minimum wage workers handing out cards advertising escort services, and where trucks roll up and down, displaying near-naked women available “hot and direct” to your hotel room.
Selling sex like pizza: totally fine. But saying “shit” in the name of journalism, or showing an ad for the wrong brand of cat food: sorry chum. Little wonder this is the same morally confused town that until recently banned nude strip clubs from serving alcohol.
After the longest obscenity trial in British legal history, Neville and his co-conspirators (including Felix Dennis who went on to publish Maxim and the Week) were sentenced to 15 months in prison and forced to close Oz. The verdict was later overturned at appeal after a media outcry, but not before part of the sentence had been served, the defendants had forcibly had their long hair hacked off in jail, John and Yoko had marched in protest, and the magazine had been described in court as “promoting voyeurism, homosexuality, flagellation, necrophilia, and treating VD like the common cold… the epitome of the permissive society.”
I smiled as I finished the book. Thank God we’re publishing NSFWCORP in 2013 Las Vegas and not 1971 London, I thought. Thank God for Lenny Bruce and freedom of speech. Thank God for the struggling print distribution industry which surely needs us more than we need them.
The experience of moving NSFWCORP into print — the printers who ignored our calls, the distributors who wouldn’t touch us with a 10-foot pole — has taught me that, for good or ill, the world of print publishing hasn’t changed much at all since the 1960s.
By issue four, Oz magazine had gone through over a dozen printers, as company after company succumbed to fears of legal action or boycotts by other clients. In the US we don’t have to worry about ending up in jail — oh, glorious First Amendment — but freedom of the press is rendered entirely irrelevant when print and distribution is controlled by a tiny cadre of puritanical, cowardly, humorless weasels for whom screwing a small independent magazine is a no-brainer compared to upsetting corporate interests.
C’est la vie. Rather than waste time trying to outsmart a bunch of idiots with vans, we’ve reassigned our Las Vegas copies to the general subscriber pool. (If anyone in Vegas wants a copy, feel free to swing by the lobby of NSFWCORPHQ, and we’ll help you out.)
And it’s not all bad news. Our Vegas distribution problems have also reassured me that, even after all these years, print retains its power to scare the crap out of people. That there’s still something about delivering a message — journalism, jokes, or both — in a physical, permanent form that trumps the digital, ephemeral platform of the Web.
That print is still important enough to cause advertisers to demand exclusivity and distributors to lose control of their bowels when confronted with language that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow online. (Man, just imagine if The Onion had joked about Quvenzhane Wallis in print.)
That, in terms of effectiveness, print is to online what protest marches are to retweets.
And of course there’s one other thing — the best thing of all– that hasn’t changed since Richard Neville was sent to the cells in 1971. The fact that you can hire the best writers, journalists, and illustrators, and give them the resources to make the best, funniest magazine the world has ever seen (and I humbly submit that NSFWCORP has done all of those things)…
…but nothing… nothing… provides better publicity for the launch of a new magazine than being able to write a headline about how an entire city is trying to ban it.
So, thank you, Las Vegas distribution mafia. Thank you from the economically unappealing bottom of my worryingly profane fucking heart.
Subscriptions to NSFWCORP’s Print Edition — THE MAGAZINE THEY TRIED TO BAN — are now open. Subscribe now to support freedom!