Article "SANITISED SAMENESS"
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The article below, published in the English magazine The Woodworker in October 1991, and here slightly revised, remains just as relevant today. In a subsequent issue of The Woodworker, two readers' letters, one for and one against my views in the article, were published. Some years later I discovered that 400 letters had been received in response--this may be a world record for the number of reader responses to a woodwork-magazine article. You might care to ponder why only two letters were published.
 

SANITIZED SAMENESS by MIKE DARLOW

A characteristic of the last quarter of the twentieth century is the proliferation of the magazine. Woodworkers have seen their specialist magazine base in English expand from probably one, The Woodworker, to about a dozen. Woodwork coverage is also found in general craft magazines including: those published by the various national and state Craft Councils; in magazines and journals concerned with related spheres such as the decorative arts, forestry, industrial woodworking, and do-it-yourself; in local and national woodworking and woodturning association newsletters; and in a host of general-interest magazines. However despite the dramatic increase in woodwork and woodturning magazine choice, I contend that there has not been a corresponding increase in the breadth and depth of the material on offer. Further the sanitized sameness of these magazines results in a readership which buys more in hope than in expectation, and in circulations which are below potential.

The editorial role

The content of a woodworking magazine is determined by and is the responsibility of its editor. Editors operate in a real world of pressures and constraints, but our understanding of these is no reason to accept editorial timidity, the erosion of the tradition of editorial independence, and the resultant degradation of the magazines.

A manifestation of the corporatization of the editor is the emasculation if not the disappearance of the editorial. Even in those few woodworking magazines which have editorials, these potentially powerful and important statements rarely rise above an introduction to that issue’s content and a little general chat. Editors, with their many sources and contacts, are uniquely placed to see trends and comment on events, yet all too often they seem to be merely passive selectors and assemblers of received contributions.

There can be an obvious conflict of interest when the magazine proprietor publishes books or other magazines, and it is obvious that some editors do extend a consideration to allied publications and their contributors which adversely affect the integrity of the woodworking magazine.

Magazines would be more expensive were it not for advertising revenue. Advertising is often worthwhile content, informing readers of products, prices, and events. As advertisers in part pay the piper, they may sometimes request a hand in calling the tune. We therefore occasionally see product reviews .

 

which are longer or more glowing than deserved, or a confusion between editorial content and advertising. For example, the December 1989 The Woodworker contained two, six-page extracts from new books. The extracts were not listed as advertisements, they were heralded in the projects section of the contents list. Neither extract described anything new, yet by being misleadingly featured as editorial they surely gained an undeserved editorial seal of approval, and could have caused proper editorial material (such as a review of each) to be omitted.

Is adverse criticism of major advertisers discouraged or rejected?–as this would be covert I have no way of knowing. I can only recall one instance of such a rejection being made public. A detailed test of woodturning multi-purpose chucks by Tobias Kaye was published in the March 1988 The Woodworker. It included the following paragraph: “The Multistar chuck was submitted for this comparative report, but the manufacturers have asked us to withdraw the section that dealt with their product in its entirety. We have reluctantly agreed.” One wonders what the offending section said, why The Woodworker agreed to withdraw it when all manufacturers were given the opportunity to respond, and what Tobias Kaye thought about the withdrawal? My own experiences unfortunately suggest that this is just the visible tip of an iceberg of repression and rejection of adverse criticism, and not just of advertisers.

Magazine editors are not alone in being potentially subject to pressures from the hands that feed. An increasing number of professional woodturners are endorsing products or receiving unpublicized retainers from commercial interests. Of course this is only harmful when integrity is compromised

The average-woodworker marketing syndrome

Undoubtedly the greatest aid to editorial courage and independence is a healthy and rising circulation. There is, I believe, a common perception of the magazine content most likely to achieve this worthy aim. It is a perception based on the image of the average woodworker. The attributes of this mythical soul are: male, in late middle-age, amateur, having limited room, time, and financial resources; keen to learn but reluctant to expend much mental effort or practice in a disciplined way; and keen to produce good work, but not averse to shortcuts even if they compromise the quality of the finished object. I have no doubt that this market researchers’ perception of the average woodworker is spot on, and has lead to a horizontal spread of content. The woodworkers who are “above” or “below” the perceived average are ignored despite them being a significant proportion of the present and potential woodworking readership. It is the lack of appreciation of this latter fact which results in the one-dimensional focus of our magazines. The spectrum of those interested in woodwork ranges from Nobel prizewinners and a former US president through to those with intellectual and physical disabilities, and each will have a different level of skill, etc. Were it probable that a potential reader on this spectrum would find any material truly interesting to him or her in each issue, then subscriptions and circulations would surely rise. Supporting this, research among friends suggests that as little as one paragraph or one illustration is sufficient to trigger a magazine’s purchase.

The most obvious change in the 1990s has been the introduction of color into our magazines. If an editor accepts the average-reader-marketing wisdom, then there is an obvious temptation to rely on glamour rather than substance. Among my woodworking colleagues there is a common judgment that this is widespread. And ownership changes in the late 1990s have accelerated this trend.Inseparable from a discussion of editorial policy is a consideration of the function of the magazine. A magazine need not be a short book with advertisements. The important characteristic of the magazine is that it is published regularly and frequently. An essential role is therefore to report events, research, developments, introductions, conflicts, thoughts, and theories which are reasonably contemporaneous with an issue’s publication date. Computer magazines perform this news function efficiently, and usually give their whole content to it. The rapidly-changing technology of computing enables this. In woodwork, however, the technology is mature and developing only slowly, and major woodworking events with significant content are rare. A strong news function is therefore more difficult to achieve in a woodwork magazine. Yet it is the neglect of this news function that most likely dissuades woodworkers from subscribing or buying regularly.

Technique

In early 1988 I submitted an article on plagiarism to Fine Woodworking. I quote from the letter of rejection, “In light of recent reader surveys, we have been trying to sharpen our focus on woodworking techniques and furniture building.” Obviously technique is important in woodwork, but its over-emphasis is in part a result of the average-woodworker marketing conventional wisdom. Technique-describing content is also safe and relatively easy to get. And why? Because it is all too often repetition, rehashed from earlier books and magazines. More decisive culling by informed editors would result in less boredom for informed readers and more space for other aspects of woodworking. Would it not be reasonable to expect all readers to have read a few basic texts? A major step forward would be for a magazine to list those books it expects its readers to be familiar with.

Technique tends to be treated in an isolated way. Contributors rarely relate their recommendations to those of earlier writers; there is a widespread absence of references, endnotes or footnotes. Contributors may be thereby seeking to inflate their own reputations, but the absence of references could also be a sop to our average reader who it is believed will be demoralized by these appurtenances of academe?

Mathematics, formulae, and even graphs are taboo–too taxing for your average Jack Plane. The attitude is well put by an editor of The Woodworker in rejecting a turning article subsequently published with considerable success elsewhere: “I feel that this is far too technical…and is not the type of down-to-earth article which will suit our subscribers. . .”  But paradoxically, simplified down-to-earth treatments make understanding more difficult because descriptions are thereby incomplete and require guesswork by the reader, guesswork which he or she may be ill-equipped to attempt.
           
Woodwork magazines prefer to accentuate the positive. Alas this does little to eliminate the negative. An example, contributor B recommends methods which conflict with those of earlier contributor A. Rarely will B refer to A, still less will B attempt to prove that B’s methods are superior to A’s. That such looseness is so common is due to a lack of commitment to truth, sometimes called intellectual truth. Simone de Beauvoir has described the twin tenets of intellectual truth: the unrelenting search for the truth, and the unflinching promulgation of the truths thus found. It is this latter tenet which is interpreted as being confrontational by those less committed.

Projects

Project articles are too common in woodwork magazines. They would seem to be commonly submitted which has the advantage of widening an overly-narrow contributor base. Yet if, as I suspect, few readers attempt them, editors may be using them as fillers. Many project articles promote aesthetic disasters, use inferior detailing, or employ doubtful woodworking practices. These faults can only be excused if the if the project is regarded as therapy.

Conflict and criticism

Woodworkers are like any other group of human beings. They disagree, have different points of view. This truth is not apparent from woodworking magazines. The Woodworker, probably the only specialist woodworking magazine for this century’s first six decades, presented woodwork as an honorable activity for gentlemen and honest artisans who knew their station in life. This influence has continued, and some magazines now exude a sanctimonious aura. However one sees instances of editorial frustration, a desire to yellow the pages a little. American Woodturner desired articles which were “provocative”, and Woodworking International advertised for “gossip. . .scandal. . .rumor”. You won't be surprised to learn that these indications of editorial boldness crumbled when mildly tested.
           
The real world of woodwork has its fair share of conflict. Airing and debating these conflicts would resolve some, or result in a healthy agreement to disagree. Knowledge would be gained and our magazines would have more bite. The absence of investigative journalism in the genera media is universally decried, yet we lamely accept its almost-total absence in our publications.

Related to the non-exposure of conflict is the absence of criticism. Both are due to misplaced editorial and contributor sensitivities. Practical Woodworking and The Woodworker were two of the few magazines which published overtly critical readers’ letters, yet it is I suspect criticism’s rarity rather than its content which make the instances so talked about among readers. Those who strut the public stage by exhibiting, writing, demonstrating, or speaking implicitly invite criticism. It can be pertinent without being malicious, and it can be valuable to the criticized. A qualification though, if there is to be criticism there must be a right of reply, especially because when criticism does appear it seems too often directed at those who seem to be unpopular or lack a cozy relationship with the woodworking establishment.

Book reviews

No bookshop displays the 100 woodturning books in print; few display even a worthwhile selection. The book review should therefore supply much-needed information, is a long-established and valid area of criticism, and aids in lifting magazines’ news content. Despite these merits the book review is on the retreat. Market research is said to show that readers are uninterested. This may explain the absence of reviews in some magazines and their abandonment by others. Yet woodwork publishing is a growth area. Why the apparent lack of reader interest? It is due to the emasculation of reviews, particularly when written “in-house”, and perhaps in some cases due to author and publisher pressure. And those reviews which are not mere rehashes of a book’s back-cover barkers all too often illuminate the reviewer’s ignorance, biases, and small-mindedness, and confirm the necessity for allowing an unfettered right of reply.

An inexplicable feature of book reviews is a reluctance to compare the subject book to its main competitors. In deciding whether to consult or buy a book you want to know how it compares. The usual “ would be a worthwhile edition to your library” is a cop-out.

Readers’ letters

Paul Johnson opined in The Spectator that the health of a magazine could be gauged from its letters page. On his criterion all woodworking magazines would be judged terminally ill.

Readers' letters are few, usually boring or inconsequential, sometimes solely self-promotional. Undoubtedly one cause is reader apathy, brought about by the dullness of the letters which are published. But another cause is editorial suppression. This article for example stimulated several hundred readers letters I discovered a couple of years after its publication. Two were published.

Personality features

A proper and inexhaustible source of news material is the feature on or interview with, a notable woodworker. We may gain an insight into what they have done and do, but rarely do we learn what they think or believe. Penetrating is not an adjective which we associate with such pieces.

The independents

The large-circulation woodworking magazines are commercial, not supported by membership fees. They have to pay their outgoings from sales and advertising, and should pay a return to their owners.

There is a growing belief that companies have extra-financial responsibilities such as to not degrade the environment. What extra-financial responsibilities do companies which disseminate woodworking news and knowledge have? There is a duty to people ensconced in the libel laws, but it is grossly imperfect. Is there a duty to woodwork? Undoubtedly magazines tend to act as if there was, and present woodwork in an apparently concerned and serious way–those who desire the explicit exposure or raunchy pin-up must seek elsewhere. But seriousness and concern are not a commitment to intellectual truth. It is not that editors are against truth, but they know that its uncompromising promulgation conflicts with today’s climate of pragmatism.

A growing proportion of woodworkers and particularly turners are joining associations and receiving journals which are funded by association annual subscriptions. Should these journals be more committed to intellectual truth than their commercial relatives? I would like to think so, but even if not there is a test which these journals sometimes fail, and that is would publication benefit the majority of the membership?

Conclusion

The average-woodworker marketing focus of magazines has been all-powerful. Those who control the media can manipulate it. We have been led to believe that the content of our magazines reflects what we want and the material we submit. Have you ever been surveyed, or bothered to complete and return a survey form? As magazine content is increasingly being generated “in-house”, the myth that our magazines reflect what we want is being exposed for the deception it is. And this myth has fostered a smug anti-intellectualism which has been used to validate the mediocrity and sloppy thinking which it suits those in power to foist upon us. Perhaps the Internet which gives anyone the potential to talk directly to thousands will paradoxically force magazines to save themselves.

 

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