I have always enjoyed writing. It has allowed me to express myself and has served as a form of therapy and personal growth. While many people assume writing is a talent rather than a skill, it actually requires talent and skill to become a good writer. It involves years of practice and an ability to use language to describe thoughts, emotions, physical surroundings and characteristics, as well as a grasp of dialogue. You must learn to make art of your experience. A writer creates a virtual world, as similar to reality as possible, that leads a reader to a realization, an “aha” moment. It is in some ways beyond reality in that it expands our outlook beyond our physical senses. When a writer is in flow and the universe aligns, the epiphany is also felt by the author of the tale. Where a story goes and what is learned is truly an art.
As I began to study creative writing, I took a class that changed my life. I met people of similar interests and developed long-standing friendships that I cherish. Most importantly, I found a mentor in my teacher, Sandy, who led me on a path of discovery and helped me to develop my talent into skill. I found myself repeating her class often, as did many of her students. She had an ability to motivate and nurture and offer constructive criticism to facilitate our journey towards excellence. Sandy also oversaw creative writing contests at the college and I was blessed to see my work in print, as winners were published in an anthology. It is every writers dream to see their work in print. The tactile experience of feeling the paper while paging through a story is a real reflection of our efforts.
When my wife Ann and I were approached to purchase Western Shooting Horse magazine, my first reaction was to wince at the idea. I told Ann that printing was becoming a thing of the past, that the Internet was the new form of publishing. Content was free and society seemed to be accepting of getting what they paid for. After much thought and soul searching, my love of print won out and we began a journey to create the best product we could provide. We focused on the impact of every photo, hiring some of the best photographers in the country, rather than depending on stock photos from advertisers or Internet photo services. We upgraded the paper, using a more expensive, but more tactile weight of paper. We experimented with glossy vs. matte finishes and eventually chose a UV protectant, rough matte finish for the cover that felt like the grit of the western world we described on our pages.
We sought a narrative style from our writers. We strived to touch all the senses and evoke an emotional response to our content, something a computer screen could not fully replicate. We broadened our reach from the small world of mounted shooting to draw an audience from all equestrian disciplines, while remaining true to our roots as the only newsstand magazine to cover the sport. Mounted shooters were now featured on a legitimate national stage. This allowed us to introduce our passion to more equestrian enthusiasts and provided a more fulfilling experience for all who love the western lifestyle in all its forms. Regular features such as Beyond Riding with Brian Bausch, offer horsemanship advice and insights of value to all competitive equestrians as well as those who ride for pleasure or spiritual growth. We also began to feature firearms of all kinds and those who cherish their right to use them. We broadened our reach into other recreational uses of firearms. This more inclusive approach to the western lifestyle culminated in changing our name to Western Horse & Gun.
The results were reassuring, as we more than doubled our print orders from where we had started. We invested substantially in more newsstand locations and were approached by Walmart, which sells about a third of all magazines in the U.S. to provide our magazine at hundreds of their locations. While their policy is to require a fee to place magazines on their shelves, they offered us this opportunity at no cost. We received awards for our content and stood shoulder to shoulder with the most successful magazines in our segment. This feedback gave us hope that our financial commitment to quality would one day pay off and we could survive the shrinking market place of print publication.
Meanwhile, the Internet intrusion on businesses of all types has continued to change the world we live in. Advertisers demand digital content from publishers and access to all forms of social media. They seek instant tracking of their reach to consumers. From a business standpoint, this makes sense. Information is key to business operations and the ability to meet changing needs and interests. However, from a purist standpoint, the move toward a virtual world points to the eventual demise of the printed product and a focus on conveyance over quality.
A Vehicle Evolution
Performance enthusiasts often lament as sports car producers replace the experience of dropping a clutch and working a stick shift with paddles behind the steering wheel. While this method of changing gears is far more efficient, it has taken some of the fun out of driving. Turbo chargers are more frequently added to engines. They offer more power, but often mute the tones that purists have long been enamored with. The electronic handbrake virtually eliminates the thrill of the handbrake turn. These efficiency improvements are making subtle, yet revolutionary changes that mark the end of traditions. Not only has technology changed the way we interact with machines, it has changed the way we communicate with each other and the ways we shop for all sorts of things as well as the expectations we have for the products we purchase.
Brick and mortar stores across the country are filing bankruptcy or closing hundreds of stores. This does not bode well with the business philosophy of “Grow or die.” Shopping malls are literally being demolished. The buying experience has gone online. The overhead required to give customers the tactile experience of interacting with a product and comparing it to others and engaging with a salesperson, requires pricing that cannot compete with virtual stores existing only as huge warehouses and shipping centers. Customer service and salesmanship, which once drew people to stores, has been replaced by call centers where people speaking poor English hide behind a headset, often presenting a take it or leave it attitude. It can take hours to get a few simple questions answered and while we save some money or at least perceive this, we continue to get what we are willing to pay for. There is an unintended cost to turning our backs on traditional communication and interaction to settle for a cold and sterile experience.
It may be too early to determine if the virtual world society is rushing towards is ultimately good for us or not. Interpersonal communication has become technical as people rely on texting, FaceBooking and Twittering, where acronyms save time, while no one ever seems to feel they are gaining any, as it is seems to pass by faster and with less meaning. Emotional exchanges and shared experiences are swapped out by emojis. Time with friends is traded for posting cell phone photos of dinner plates with no one sharing them or check-ins from our mundane daily task lists. People seek instant gratification and reward for the slightest victory. “Made it home today, boy traffic was a nightmare! Made chicken and potatoes for dinner tonight. Went to the gym today. Finished my taxes today.” The ones that irritate me most are those where people make general statements and wait to see how many people will ask them what the heck they are talking about. “This is the worst day of my life.” Instead of calling a friend or dropping by to see them, people count Likes as friendship points as we troll for attention from profile pictures of hundreds of people we have never met. Reality is held in contempt against a simulated world mistaken for something we control, rather than a false, two-dimensional dictator of what is worthy of our shortened attention spans.
Life is about choices. The decisions we make every moment shape our destiny. It is not always the seemingly big choices that contour our lives. It is often the subtle ones that add up to vast changes and unintended consequences that we have slowly lost the ability to see coming. Convenience and lazy communication lead to a good enough attitude that may one day have us all looking backward at the promises of a better life that were virtual lies. Are we more fulfilled as we rely on computerized telephones, email instead of letter writing, cheap flights surrounded by people in pajamas and flip flops, where those who once provided services and pleasant conversation are now policing us as though we are all potential terrorists? Is customer service already a thing of the past? Has society turned its back on the arts and humanities in favor of electronic gadgets and sterile communication? We likely won’t know the answer to these questions until it is too late.
For our part, we will continue to provide our readers an authentic experience in the traditional art form of publishing on paper. We will offer language that touches the senses and challenges the intellect, photography that captures reality and fascinates the minds eye and the subtle pleasure touching our pages and displaying our covers proudly on your coffee table. You will form the future of print as you select your preferences. As long as you continue to appreciate the efforts of people who share your love of the western lifestyle and pour this love onto the printed page, we will stand together as a purist testament to the art of communication and a shield against a bland and meaningless, virtual existence. The market will always give customers what they ask for, so be careful to consider the consequences of your choices.
Photo credit: Scoop Anthony