Yesterday, the tasteful-culture bible Paste abruptly suspended its print edition, the latest music-related publication to shut down in the past few years. The Paste website, on which the display ads for subscriptions lead to an announcement of the print issue’s suspension, will continue to live on, running stories that were in the pipeline for issues of the magazine that haven’t been printed (including the issue dated August 2010, which is still at the printer).
Reaction to the magazine’s demise, the latest in a long line of them, has been swift, and even sort of nice — even the claws-out commenters at Gawker were for the most part kind. “It’s kind of like when we went through the ‘Save Paste‘ campaign last year, which we were very hesitant to do,” said editor-in-chief Joshua Jackson, who remains at the magazine with publisher Nick Purdy and president Tim Regan-Porter, as well as a few interns. “It seems like every email I’m getting is somebody just wishing us the best, and thanking us for what Paste has meant to them.”
Founded in 2002 as a quarterly, the Georgia-based magazine became a major player in the music media in a relatively short time. It was printed on thick stock and was gorgeously designed, and it brought many accomplished writers into its fold. In its heyday, it held launch events in New York City (including an intimate show with Beck at the Knitting Factory); it was nominated for the National Magazine Award in General Excellence for the last three years, although because of its financial problems the staffers didn’t make it up to New York for the awards ceremony this year. “It was kind of sad that we were struggling and couldn’t justify spending money on plane tickets to New York when we owed people money,” said Jackson. “We were just trying to get to where it was recapitalized, pay off debts, and move forward.”
Perhaps most indicative of Paste‘s influence was the way it quickly developed its own aesthetic stereotype, crystallized by the magazine’s selection of Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise as the best album of the 2000s. It frequently took ribbing from some quarters for being too tasteful, too on the side of pop-cultural righteousness. In 2007, the magazine put Kanye West on the cover, and “People thought we were nuts . . . like we had abandoned some perceived version of what we were,” said associate editor Rachael Maddux, who was employed by Paste for four years and whose criticism was nominated for an ASME award last year. “There was this public perception of the magazine among people who didn’t even read us, and whenever we strayed from that — also using the Kanye cover as an example — it was like, ‘Oh, Paste is trying to be this thing they’re not. Who do they think they are?’ ”
Shortly after the hubbub over the Kanye cover, Radiohead engaged in a pay-what-you-will scheme to distribute low-quality digital versions of its album In Rainbows. Paste decided to take a similar tack. At the time, the play made sense to the people on the business side — boosting the subscriber base would make the title more attractive to advertisers, and would widen the magazine’s rate base. But the advertising model that prized the size of a subscriber base over the actual revenue that said subscribers built in was on the verge of taking a big hit.
“2008 was when things started getting very difficult,” Jackson said. “We experienced a lot of growth going into the downturn; we’d grown our subscriber base, and our focus was just on getting a lot more people knowing about our magazine, and the payoff was going to be all the advertising money coming from that subscriber base. And all our projections just took a nosedive, [which happened] across the industry.”
In January 2010, Purdy called that experiment a success, noting that it had caused the magazine’s subscriber base to grow by 30,000 people. But that interview came after the summer of 2009, when Paste embarked on a fundraising campaign — “The Campaign to Save Paste” — after the cashflow at the magazine, according to the pitch, “unexpectedly reached an all-time low, and turned a tough situation into a short-term crisis.” That campaign raised more than $275,000 — a nice sum to quote in articles, but nowhere near the amount needed to publish a magazine, pay staff and freelancers, and keep the lights on at an office space.
So where does the magazine go from here? To the Web, where the production costs are a lot cheaper and where drive-by users are more likely to be drawn in than at a magazine rack. The online product Paste has offered up to this point has drawn in a somewhat healthy amount of readers, although some have noticed its tendency to publish many examples of the Internet catnip known as the “listicle” — a rundown of items, presented in counted-down form so the commentariat have extra opportunities to argue.
Last week, blogger Chris Burlingame instituted a feature called “Top 10 listicles from Paste Magazine this week,” and the lists on the list (phew) reveal a certain willingness to pull in readers from all over the pop-cultural spectrum:
10. 10 Songs Better Than Katy Perry’s
9. Nine Nostalgic Nintendo Games to Secretly Play at Work
8. Eight Housewives Who Would Make Kick-Ass Superheroes
7. Top 10 Atlanta Concerts for September
6. The 10 Best TV Title Sequences
5. Sixteen Comedians, Musicians and Actors to Follow on Tumblr
4. The Best Bathroom Graffiti: Notes From The Stall
3. Ten Documentaries Coming to Theaters & DVD in Fall 2010
2. Eighteen of Awkward Stock Photos’ Most Inexplicable Finds
1. The Best Fake Criterion Covers
While these lists do have a higher-brow bent to them, there’s also a willingness to use search-engine-optimized figures like Katy Perry to make points — one that in the print world isn’t as necessary for pulling in readers. Jackson is confident, howeer, that Paste won’t have to go the Zombie Radar route in order to attract new eyeballs. “We’re not gonna give the Paste take on Jersey Shore or something like that,” said Jackson. (It should be noted that none of the “Housewives” counted down on the aforementioned list are the “Real,” Bravo-bred type.) “But there’s definitely room to put our perspective on whatever interests us, and that’s a pretty wide range.”
“A funny list about Justin Bieber would never make it into the magazine,” Maddux noted, “but we’d do it online just because there was the space and we could make it work into something that seemed Paste-y.”
For now, the elegies and spitballing about what went wrong for the magazine — not just internally, but externally — will continue, as will the search for a revenue model.
“We’d been running on fumes for a really long time,” said Jackson. “And we ran out of fumes.”
(Disclaimer: I contributed a piece to the April issue of the magazine. Also, my personal blogging endeavors have been included on at least one of the magazine’s many listicles.)