Everything’s Gonna Be All Right (Just Different)

Permanent Musical Accompaniment to this Post: 

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT 7 conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS last week. The Magazine Innovation Center was founded in 2009 by Dr. Samir Husni of the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism in response to the crisis the magazine publishing industry found itself in after the start of the Great Recession of 2008. To me, the ACT conferences (ACT means Amplify, Clarify, Testify) serve two purposes: The first is to give a small group of magazine professionals a chance to meet together and exchange information about the business in a setting that is outside the usual “industry conference” setting. The second and in some ways more important one is to allow undergraduate and graduate students of journalism and magazine publishing a chance to learn from and interact with industry professionals.

This was not my first time to an ACT conference. In fact, it was my fourth. I attended the first in 2010, the second a few years later. Last year I was incredibly privileged to give a presentation on launching a magazine onto the newsstand. This year I served on a panel that discussed what publishers needed to know in order to have a successful launch.

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The Overby Center, home to the ACT Conference.

I return to the ACT conferences because I thoroughly enjoy the intimacy of the conference community and it pairs well with the depth of experience of the presenters and panelists. There is a very collegial and community feel to the meeting. If you’ve ever been to a International Regional Magazine Association meeting you may know what I’m talking about.

The other reason is the students. These are some pretty incredible people. Their mere presence defies all of the stereotypes you read about Millennials and Gen Ys. I’ll discuss that more in a bit.

If you want to know what some of the panels were like, check out Dr. Husni’s blog to see what I am talking about.

This week, the newsstand business is buzzing with the news that TNG, the largest magazine wholesaler in North America is purchasing Ingram Periodicals, LLC (IPI) from the Ingram Content Group. IPI is the exclusive magazine distributor to Barnes and Noble, Jo Anne’s Fabrics, and several hundred independent bookstores. B&N may account for as much as 75 -80% of IPI’s business according to several industry professionals.

As soon as this news was released, my email and my phone blew up with comments and questions about what all of this will mean. What is the future for the newsstand side of the magazine business?

So?

Obviously TNG will get bigger. Most likely, the IPI warehouses will close. Some IPI employees may get to stay on in the TNG organization. Others will not find jobs and will leave the industry. Will TNG look to acquire Media Solutions next? Hudson News? What will this mean for One Source, the distributor to Whole Foods who uses IPI warehouses? How will they wield all of this accumulated power?

Much of the commentary I heard was negative. Depending on your point of view, working in the newsstand business is pretty much nothing but a long hard slog from one bit of “bad news” to another bit of “bad news.”

But let’s be realistic. What’s been going on in the newsstand distribution business since the massive consolidations of 1995 – 1997 is nothing other than change. We often don’t like change but so what? It may be personal to us but to the people who implement change, it is not personal.

Change in our business came as regional retail chains gave way to large powerhouse national chains. Simultaneously, TV Guide gave way to cable television. The seven sisters of the check-outs gave way to other forms of entertainment for women. Adult entertainment magazines, the third leg of the profit triad for magazine wholesalers, retailers and national distributors lost circulation to VHS tapes, then to DVDs, and finally the internet. Those three sources of newsstand circulation were what made magazine racks in retail stores the “must haves” for retailers. Unlike our European cousins, our industry focused on check out exposure and not the mainline.

We have two large national magazine wholesalers because the large national chains that carry magazines want it that way. We lose circulation because there are many other things (like Netflix and YouTube) that compete for people’s leisure time and pocket change. Retail shopping patterns are changing. Perhaps you’ve heard of Amazon?

Throughout the past decade, we’ve heard call and response after call and response for the newsstand business to “work together”. To “solve” the problems of the newsstand. I would suggest to you that the newsstand may be the way larger publishers and retailers want it to be. Mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind. Frankly the folks in the executive suites have other things on their mind: Events, mobile web, video, subscriptions, and newsletters.  Newsstand is and always has been a small piece of the circulation pie. Just a very visible one that people like to write about.

I’ve always liked this business because I like magazines and I like characters. And there are still a lot of characters and magazines in this business. When I started this blog, I talked about surfing the waves of change. You can surf. Or you drown. It is up to us who work in this business to affect as much change as we can on behalf of our publishers. You want change? Make it so.

Why do I think “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”?

At the close of the ACT 7 conference, Samir called a number of students up onto the stage at the Overby Center. These students were seniors in Samir’s class and their final project was to create, edit and print a magazine. I was fortunate enough to get to see some of these magazines and they were pretty impressive. as with other ACT conferences, I got to see and sometimes interact with Samir’s students.

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Dr. Samir Husni awards prizes to Ole Miss seniors for creating magazines as part of their final projects.

After seeing these students, let me tell you, when it comes to the magazine business, everything’s gonna be all right.

Just different. Very different.

 

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In Which Captain Obvious Drops in for a Visit

Earlier this month, the release of the latest rounds of newsstand sales numbers from industry data consolidator MagNet resulted in yet another flurry of concerned articles from the magazine industry trade press.

News reports about newsstand sales fascinate me. They tend to follow the 21st century digital reporting trend of reviewing someone else’s work and then writing about it. The Folio report was thorough and it went through the numbers and pointed out what was up and what was down and how dire the numbers looked.

Thank you. There’s no way anyone in magazine media couldn’t have have sussed that out on their own

Medialife performed a similar feat. However they also helpfully pointed out what category was down the most. In case you missed it, it was the celebrity and weekly titles. They also informed us that this could be because of free stuff on the web.

Free stuff on the web! Who knew?

Folio upped the ante a few days later with some stern warnings from industry Cassandra, Baird Davis* who continues to point out some practices contemporary audience development practitioners use to prop up their circulation numbers that seem to contribute to the problem: Verified subs, sponsored subs and other free or low revenue generating copies.

I’m convinced that no self respecting audience development/circulation professional would challenge any of these assertions because they have a point.

But that’s not the point. Circulation people are doing these things either because we’re being told to (so we have to), or it may actually be working for that publisher’s big picture (Which may not take newsstand distribution into account because – well, it just doesn’t).

So here’s the thing:

We can blame the decline of newsstand sales on the expansion of the mobile web. We could blame it on the fact that no one wants to read “magazines”.

Newsstand professionals may also cite the rapid consolidation the industry experienced, the high level of discount and promotional demands put on publishers that prevents them from investing in any further newsstand development. Other people close to the business might bring up merchandising failures, failures to follow on-sale dates. They may cite what they consider to be a weak wholesaling system. You name it there are dozens of reasons for a declining newsstand sales.

Then there is the issue of ridiculous subscription pricing tactics. That’s a good one. Why would you spend $5.00 at retail for one copy of Time Magazine when you can buy a six month subscription to the magazine for just $5.00?

That is a very good question. And I’d love to see a study that answered it.

Baird, and others who have written about the newsstand correctly point out that the rise of SIPs and Book A Zines creates a zero sum game where the consumer will spend $9.99 (or more) for a fat magazine filled with pictures and articles and then decide not to pick up the $4.99 monthly.

Good point, that one.

In fact, they are all excellent points and have some validity.

People do walk around these days with their noses stuck in their smart phones.

The industry did consolidate rapidly and it feels like we continue to endure earth-shaking re-arrangements that impact our finances, our ability to merchandise, our relationships with our retailing and wholesaling partners.

Subscription pricing is a challenge.

I found it very interesting that while these articles did a great job of consolidating the MagNet numbers and repeating Baird’s warnings, none of them reached out to any actual publishers. They could have talked to the publishers who experienced growth in the last year: Kappa, Trusted Media, Topix, Hoffman and asked them what they were doing differently and what was working for them. They could have asked other publishers why they thought sales were down so much and what they were trying to do about it. I know a few in both categories.

Sometimes I wonder if it matters. Does anyone really care about single copy sales outside of reciting “frightening” numbers every six months and offering casually obvious observations:

Because in the end, I would asset that the problems at the newsstand have more to do with the problems facing bricks and mortar retailing than anything else.

In the 1990’s retailers demanded wholesaler consolidation, one bill, uniform pricing and service because that was what they needed as they experienced their transition from regional chains into national and global chains.

Now Retailers are closing stores at an accelerating rate because they overbuilt in the last two decades. Why did they overbuild? You may as well ask why the sun rises in the east. I think it’s called competition. Or capitalism. Some may call it hubris.

The rise of e-commerce has impacted traditional retailers in a number of ways ranging from the “show rooming” effect to the cost of trying to compete with e-commerce retailers at the game they invented

One of the most important retailers to the newsstand industry, Barnes and Noble continues to generate a significant amount of sales for the business (they are a top 5 retailer for every single title I work with) and maintain the most extensive list of titles in the business. However they continue to close stores even as they experiment with new store formats.

Meanwhile, Amazon not only competes with books and discounted subscriptions online, but they currently have four bricks and mortar stores and plans to open another six. Do you think they’re interested in playing in the current existing distribution structure?

We see other online retailers experimenting with bricks and mortar stores as they realize that a physical presence can extend their brand reach.

What we are seeing in retail, at least as far as I can tell is a reorganizing of how consumers shop and socialize. Just as print and ink is not going away, bricks and mortar is not going to go away either. People are social animals. We like to be out and about.

But we are seeing a restructuring of who will lead the market, what that market will look like. And that clearly will impact the place for magazines in the new order.

In other words, it is no longer enough for circulators to consider all of the steps they need to take to get the magazine onto the rack. We now must consider how we will interact with potential readers and get them to come to the rack for the magazine. We will need to think about how we interact with the retailer to let them know how we are trying to drive traffic into their stores.

That is quite a challenge for an industry that likes silos.

I suppose that in the end this is nothing but a lot of nitpicking. But we now live in a world where the exchange of information is very easy. The fact that newsstand sales are down and still declining is not “fake news” to be angry about. Newsstand sales are down. This a challenging business. But I would asset that we are doing ourselves a disservice by doing nothing but repeating the obvious. There’s a lot more going on here.

Don’t stop with the numbers. Tell us what is working. Tell us what is not working. Tell us what is new and interesting. Talk to the big publishers. Talk to the small publishers.

Six months from now, the numbers will still be down. And circulators who are audited will still be discounting subs and using verified and audited bulk circulation. Because that is what they believe they need to do to stay competitive. Disagree with them? Well, go and ask them why they do it.

So let’s do something different the next time around. I’m busy. I need information. I don’t want obvious.

*Editor’s Note: I used to work for Baird and I happen to like and admire him very much. He’s been warning our industry for years about best circulation practices and it would be very nice if some of our leaders would heed his very rational warnings and observations. It would be even nicer if some of our industry news outlets would talk to publishers who practice what he warns about to get their side of the story.

Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack: The Cubbies Edition

Editor’s Note: Permanent music video for this series. See if you  can guess the significance…

Here we go again. There’s been a lot of interest in the Chicago Cubs this year for obvious reasons. So much so that two publishers actually put out Chicago Cubs book-a-zines in the weeks leading up to the World Series.

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Wanna buy a Cubs World Series Special? Yeah, good luck with that!

It is not surprising that within hours of the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years, every brick and mortar store in Chicago and the collar counties put out giant racks of blue Cubs shirts, hats and every other sort of tchotchke and gizmo you can imagine.

And of course, a few other publishers got in on the game and put out their world series specials.

However at this particular retailer not only has the mainline rack been cut down in size and shunted from the retailers’ dead zone to the retailers’ even deader zone, but unsold Cubs merchandise got stuck in front of the mainline.

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It’s money that matters.

Our industry continues to launch a lot of new product. Most of what I’ve seen these days is better written, produced on better paper and offers better value even though the cover price is higher. Unfortunately, much of it is also niche and doesn’t come close to replacing the sales we’ve lost from general interest mass merchandise titles.

As a result, we can expect to continue to see smaller racks, and obscured racks.

So I moved the cart and the rack.

 

Trump, The Cover

 

Editor’s Note: This seems appropriate….

 

Is it possible that there are more magazine covers this year with Donald J. Trump on the cover than say, Taylor Swift? Heck yes! Have I managed to count them all? Well, no. I had to stop after a while. It would have been a really interesting exercise trying to count them all*. However it is planning season and spending all that time on Google is something I politely call a “Non-Revenue Generating Activity.”

So, no. I don’t have proof that there are more Trump covers than Swift covers, but go look at a newsstand and tell me what you think.

Of course the newsweeklies, business mags and culture pubs are the ones having the most fun with the mercurial Republican candidate as a cover story. Below are a collection of some of the ones I’ve found over the course of the year.

Here’s a few from Time Magazine.

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I’m a fan of illustrated covers so my favorite is the one from August 22nd.

Newsweek Magazine, which no longer tries to follow in Time‘s shoes went with a more straightforward, head-on approach.

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The current iteration of Newsweek retains the white on red logo but adds a small “folder tab” on the bottom right for the issue date. It’s an interesting add-on and I think it works to both preserve the original brand ID and set the new version apart. Other than the white on red, there is nothing else about the “new” Newsweek that resembles it’s predecessor as far as I am concerned (It’s a much better magazine). For the record, Trump has been on many Newsweek covers over the years. Here’s one from 1990 when he was having some trouble with his real estate companies:

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So the hair style hasn’t changed much.

Meanwhile, The Economist yet again shows us that British humor and intellect always arrives with an arched eyebrow.

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Apparently so.

 

Meanwhile, The New Yorker, the sophisticated tongue in cheek publication from Trump’s hometown has had great fun mocking the developer turned presidential candidate in a series of off-beat covers.

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Across the island, New York Magazine, which avoids illustrated covers went with a more posed picture of Trump during it’s expose on how his campaign operates.

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That is some seriously huge manspread.

Years ago, John F. Kennedy, Jr. identified the intersection between politics and entertainment and launched George Magazine. In fact, you may remember that back in 2000 Trump flirted with the idea of running for president and this was covered in the February/March issue of the magazine.

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So apparently we have seen this before.

It is fitting, then, that this year The Hollywood Reporter got into the act in June with their own Trump cover.

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Will Hollywood support Trump?

To show how politics has become entertainment, the newsstand champ, People Magazine asked “Who is the Real Donald Trump?” in their April cover.

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It’s a little late to ask that question now.

 

In the end, what all these magazine covers have in common is their immediacy. They’re on topic and address something that is important to their audiences. They approach their main cover topic (Trump) with respect and understanding of their audience. The New Yorker, for example, always has a pointed, sarcastic spin on the city and their cover topic.

Back in June, I announced what I thought were the five most egregious covers to date for 2016. Coming in at number four was this cover.

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Sorry, Melania

To my mind, Melania Trump can certainly stand alone on the cover of a luxury magazine. Having Trump lurking in the background strikes me as a bit creepy.

So what Trump covers have I missed from this year? What do you like or dislike about them?

*For the record, I should probably pick up the phone and call the nice folks down at MagNet and ask them if they have the count. Chances are they probably do.

#TheFirstWeekOfFall

Editor’s Note:  If you’re lucky, you get to meet someone during your career who can inspire imaginative thinking, offer a calming influence and when necessary, some very funny late afternoon riffing. This post was inspired by a long time friend who called to blow off a little of that late afternoon steam and crack wise about the magazine “media” industry.

This is for you my friend. A thanks for the friendship, the fun, and the ability to laugh at the absurdities of our business.

The first week of Fall is upon us. Kids have been back in school for a while. Leaves are starting to change color and some are already falling from the trees. There’s no frost yet but maybe the air where you live is a little cooler. There’s that anticipation that the holiday season is just there, just a little bit beyond the horizon. You may be too busy to think much about it, but it’s starting to push its way into your thoughts.

Here in the shallower pools of the publishing industry. That place where magazines get sold at full retail, most people have their production schedules set. They know if they have promotional dollars. They know if they have a job. Or if they’re going to get outsourced. Again.

But more importantly, if you work in newsstand, you may already have a pretty good idea of what those second half AAM, BPA and MagNet reports could look like.  For those of us who dare to dream we have a pretty good idea what upper management might ask when we’re seated around the conference room table sometime just before the holidays.

Picture yourself in that conference room. Maybe the meeting will go something like this…

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What do you think the end of the year will bring you? What’s your outlook for 2017?

Every Picture (Doesn’t) Tell A Story

 

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An infuriating, but not entirely accurate juxtaposition.

I saw this picture in my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week. It’s pretty powerful and tells a story that is true. At the same time however it’s not exactly accurate.

Oh great, now I’m going to come off like I’m mansplaining. Well, here goes.

I spend my life in the magazine world. For the past year I’ve had the really terrific privilege of working in the children’s category with a noted and well-respected children’s publisher.

I also used to be a Boy Scout and a subscriber to Boy’s Life Magazine. So I’ve kept an eye out for the magazine and watched their evolution for a long time.

So I get the anger that the picture and accompanying article is expressing. I get the point. It’s the 21st century. Why are we still telling girls to be pretty and cute and love pink and purple and wait for their prince instead of go out and have adventures?

This is a no brainer.

But the question I wanted to ask when I saw the picture was: Why the hell were those two magazines put side by side in that library? Don’t those librarians pay attention to content?

Boys Life Magazine is the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. The magazine is about and for boys. Boy Scouts: Camping = rockets, experiments, social projects. Boys.

Girls Life Magazine is a publication that is run by a privately held company that publishes a consumer-oriented magazine aimed at girls aged 10 – 16 who are raised in what I guess some might consider consumer oriented families? On it’s web page it says without any apologies exactly what it is all about: “focusing on fun stuff like fashion, beauty, and celebs along with real information and advice on friends, family, school, tough stuff and more.”

So, yeah, there you have it. The publishers are very up-front about who and what they are. I’ll leave it to any reader who passes by to decide if they want to judge that.

The question, then is are there magazines that are aimed at pre-teen and teenaged girls that aren’t all about fashion and celebs and beauty?

The most obvious example is Discovery Girls. This publication considers their readers to be “curious, strong, and enthusiastic about becoming the very best they can be.”

Discovery Girls
Perhaps the best in the category.

And while some people aren’t thrilled with some of the consumer aspects aligned with its parent company, Mattel,  American Girl Magazine magazine says that “In a culture that tends to pressure girls to fast-forward through their childhood, American Girl tells its readers: “It’s great to be a girl!”

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It’s great to have a deep pocketed parent company.

I think that New Moon Girls Magazine is probably the closest thing to what the author is looking for. I would hope that the library where this was spotted carries the publication. New Moon was founded in 1992 as a magazine and on-line community for and about younger girls. The fact that it’s survived independently for 24 years says a lot about its editorial strength. I’ve read this magazine. It’s great.

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24 years? They’re doing something right don’t you think?

There’s a new entry into this category and I’m really excited about finding a copy in the wild.  Kazoo Magazine  is a brand new quarterly magazine for girls who want to “make some noise.” Regular features in this new magazine will include “…science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts…”. Frankly, I think this may be the most interesting children’s magazine launch of the decade.

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Go make some noise! A lot of noise! And sell a lot of copies!

 

Interestingly, most magazine that are published for younger children, such as Highlights, Ranger Rick, Cricket and Ask are not sex specific.

What about atypical launches for adult women? There are always some really great new launches each year. Perhaps the most interesting one I’ve seen is the print version of “Misadventures Magazine,” a quarterly print publication that started life as a web site, sprouted an e-commerce store and then it’s first print edition a year ago.

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Great cover. Great launch. Great niche.

So, yeah, here we are, well into the second decade of the 21st century. A decade that has seen “typical” social patterns, sexual stereotypes and the like shattered. It is both sad and upsetting to see that in a place of learning, a library where clearly the librarians should know better, that a “typical” boys magazine is placed next to a “typical” girls magazine and implies that they are equal. They’re not and this is especially true when the two magazine have next to nothing in common with the exception of some very old tropes.

A deeper look at the whole of the category shows that there is more out there, for girls at least, than celebs and mean girls. The durability of titles like Discovery Girls, New Moon Girls and the exciting launch of Kazoo shows us that.

So maybe the question should also be, “Where are the alternative niche boys magazines?”

 

In Praise of Analog

There’s a large rectangular white box sitting in our basement. It’s a basic white refrigerator and it has absolutely no bells or whistles. Two doors, freezer up top, fridge on the bottom. You set the temperature with a dial. The big add-on was some extra ice-cube trays.

At best estimate, it’s about 20 some odd years old and it’s lived in three different homes. Over the years it’s been used and abused and ignored and neglected. But no matter what, it’s always worked and done it’s duty.

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As a self-employed person, most of my ready cash goes to the government; the insurance people and what’s left over might make it into a retirement account. There’s not a lot for the latest in digital bells and whistles. So I’m think I’m pretty good at keeping my tech up to date with the latest installations and when I do pick up a new piece of equipment, I make sure its’ fully powered and going to last.

But it seems to me that in today’s digital environment we are slaves to the tech. At two years of age, my once top of the line iPhone 6 is starting to have techno burps, farts and tantrums. A three-year-old iPad periodically disconnects itself from a Wi-Fi router that is sitting no less than two feet from it. An even bigger and more powerful router that is less than two years old tends to get into arguments with the Comcast cable box. Of course all of the Comcast lines in the neighborhood like to go on vacation periodically.

We are slaves to our tech. At last count, I had something like 125 different passwords on file to different sites. They change frequently and while there are numerous handy little apps and built-ins on browsers that track it all for you, how many times have you found yourself repeatedly trying to get a new password sent to you by the site you’re trying to access?

It’s no longer enough to be proficient at MS Office. We also have to know a host of other digital programs and apps if we want to be attractive to a new employer or client. But ask yourself, what exactly did you get out of the latest update? The annual OS updates from Apple alternatively either slow down my machines, or offer “innovations” that seem pointless. Does anyone like the last few iterations of iTunes? To be fair, while some of these updates are nice to have, I don’t understand the hyperbole that accompanies them. Yes, it does make computing easier, sometimes. But I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out how to make this happen.

Please don’t get me started on what I think of MS Office updates.

Our tech is supposed to manage us, make our lives easier, make us happier. Does it? My friends who have the latest Apple Watch or similar digital minders seem to be constantly distracted by something twitching on their arm. At the beginning of many runs or bike rides, I find myself mildly annoyed with the Fitbit app because of some lag or error message or the simple fact that it exists and I feel compelled to turn it on. I’ve been known to give the finger to my poor iPhone because the free version of MayMyRide is chock full of pop ups, interruptions and requests to rate it. Then I feel irritated that I feel entitled not to want to pay for the pop up free version.

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Source: Fastcompany.com

We used to have a washer and dryer that were, according to a home inspector, at least fifteen years old. “You should get another five years out of them,” he said, “They’re a little beat up so keep an eye out.” They lasted another ten and when the washer sprung a leak and made a lake in the basement, we replaced them with the latest in front end loaders.

“Well,’ said a repairman we had out to the house recently, “These new ones tend to burn out pretty quickly. You said it’s ten years old?”

I did a quick calculation and nodded.

“You’re lucky! Seven or eight is what I usually see for this model.”

Lovely.

Our cars send us emails when they don’t feel well or think they need something. They ping at us when a tire is running low. The more expensive cars tell you which tire. If you’re driving something a little more middle class, you have to guess or remember where you put your tire gauge.

I mostly curse at my cars so maybe they feel bad. They tell me that “The phone has been connected!” and then disconnect the phone. I like the idea of satellite radio, but do I want to get clipped for yet another monthly fee for some tech?

Let me make it clear, I’m not some Luddite wishing for the days when we had to cross the room to change the channel from CBS to ABC. I usually appreciate the tech and think that much of it is nice to have.

But it seemed like analog refrigerators, TVs, cars, stereo systems and phone worked for me. They were there to serve me. They did exactly what I told them to do. To be honest was not very much. But they did what they were told and if they didn’t, they were fixed.

Today, I often feel like I serve at the pleasure of my tech. I do what they tell me to do. I service them. When I’m not in awe of some of their capabilities, I have a queasy feeling that I’m not really in control of gadgets.