Friday, August 6, 2010

September MR Editorial

Editorial or advertisement?

I am a casual reader of Model Railroader magazine every month (or two or three as I often let them pile up before consuming). I say casual because I don't read every word, but rather I skip and jump through the articles, mainly enjoying the pretty photographs as I would gazing out a car window at the scenery: I make note of interesting things, but for the most part I just enjoy the activity, and MR is a great publication for that. The only things I read closely are the editorial and Tony Koester's "Trains of Thought" column, which is the best thing in the magazine. The Sept 2010 issue was no exception, and I am motivated to comment because of the editorial.


I find a less-than-minor annoyance in the editorial by Neal Besougloff that read as an advertisement for all things MR. The point of the editorial was that MR publishes a lot of special issues under separate titles every year, and that MR magazine alone can't publish all of this information desired by readers by itself. After running down a laundry list of these special publications, the editorial concludes with instructions on how to order them. To me, the editorial is a space for the editor to voice his opinion about the subject of his publication and/or frame the topics that follow in order to add value to the reader's experience of the material the editor has compiled. This month's editorial was simply an advertisement.

This seems indicative of the editorial direction of the publication. Understanding that the publishing industry is on the ropes at the moment and that MR is a for-profit venture, MR has consistently displayed a commercial face with regards to how it treats its advertisers and the lack of citations within its pages of other publications in the hobby. It heavily moderates its online forum to delete references or links to other publications and is generally defensive about its market share. I will reiterate that MR is a for-profit venture, and further say that it all of these actions are perfectly normal and can be seen as good business practice (albeit not good if you take the long view of the situation where dedication to the content makes for a more valuable product) . What bothers me is that it is so obvious and actually gets in the way of  the delivery of content in the magazine, like taking up editorial space to advertise its own products. It is inconceivable that they or any other publication would take advertising space to editorialize, so why is it OK to do the inverse?

Thinking man

A second notable aspect of the editorial is found in the body of the editorial is a mention of Tony's Model Railroad Planning described as a "thinking man's guide to model railroading". I found this very humorous and telling at the same time. It does two things - it says that Tony's column is an intellectual cut above the rest of the publication, and it says that the rest of the publication is not about 'thinking.' What this indicates to me is an implicit acknowledgment there are two different approaches to model railroading (and, by extension, everything in life).

The two different approaches can be expressed in many different dichotomies that relate to a division of  Thinking and Technology. From a discussion about the term 'design'.:

Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and “hard,” the other aesthetic, evaluative and “soft.”

What we see in Neil's description is this same rift in model railroading between the hobby practiced as an intellectual approach to creation, and one that is a craft approach to artifact building. Not saying either is better or worse - I am merely pointing out that this difference does exist, and we should embrace both and not be threatened by either - but I would like to see more of a balance between the amounts of the two approaches seen in publications for the hobby. It is then the place of design as a distinct activity to unite these two to produce a superior product that neither could do on its own. A  for-profit magazine such as MR should strive to achieve a similar balance between focusing on creating valuable content and the extraction of monetary value from presentation of content.