I was sent a link to a post on Lance Mindheim’s blog about the importance of the model railroad press to the overall health of the hobby. My purpose here is not to start a flame war. I respect Lance and his contributions to the craft and, he raises important issues with this post that need further discussion. However, I read this post with mixed emotions and will simply say that we have different views.

To quickly summarize the article, Lance shared how the general interest magazines once served as a valued central clearinghouse for hobby related information. The value they provided was not only news and information but also high journalistic standards for accuracy and curation of said material. Then, as Lance continues, the Internet changed it all by cannibalizing the audience for print with an explosion of choices in free but unvetted information.

He states how magazine publishers in general were caught off guard by the coming digital wave and have been scrambling to catch up ever since. He casts some of the blame for hobby magazine’s woes toward allegedly difficult to work with writers; at readers, who are indifferent to quality material, and at any segment of the online community that engages in unwarranted criticism with impunity, stating that, and I’m quoting directly now: “non-objective written, destructive criticism online is toxic to the hobby.”

Here’s the link to the full post.

I agree with certain of Lance’s statements in the initial paragraphs. Magazine publishing as an industry has struggled to understand the impact of digital technology on their business models; with the way readers now want to consume information and what the future of publishing is going to look like. And, I agree with his assessment of the role the general interest hobby magazines played and continue to play. Further, we agree on the importance of journalistic standards for accuracy and in depth reporting, along with the value of curation in an ocean of choice. But throughout his post Lance paints a grim picture with a very broad brush. My opinion shifted as I read because in my view, the concluding paragraphs devolved into the very kind of online rant he so soundly condemned.

How do we want to learn?
The central question in my view, goes beyond print versus digital, it’s how do we intelligently utilize the strengths of each?

This is one of the questions posed by Associate Professor of Curriculum and Teaching at Fordham University and author Kristen Hawley Turner, PhD. and co-author Troy Hicks in their book Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers In A Digital World, where they examine this question and others in the context of an educational setting.

For the sake of disclosure, I have not read the book but how does their question apply to our purposes? Rather than condemn the march of progress and accessibility to remarkable technology, it begs us to consider how do we want to receive and use relevant hobby information? It begs us to consider what do we want to learn?

In terms of learning about our craft, what does print do supremely well that digital cannot? And the opposite: what is digital technology uniquely suited for?

Digital communities
This blog would not exist without digital technology. This blog is a community in the sense that I offer my thoughts, you folks keep me honest and we all benefit. At least I hope that is so. In addition, I benefit from the modeling perspectives of people from all parts of the globe. This would be incredibly burdensome to do without the ease of connection the Internet makes possible.

In that light, blogs, when they are at their best, have grown to supplement the role of magazines as a source of community and information. Of course, how effectively this works depends on the host and how well they form and set the tone for that community and work to keep it healthy. Like other aspects of life, if this was easy, everyone would do it. Given the fallen nature of people and given the levels of rudeness we tolerate within this hobby, it’s not easy and that’s why a thriving, healthy community is as rare online as off.

Digital video/Photography/Audio
I will be the first to agree that too many modelers have no clue how to shoot decent quality video. There is no excuse because the tools and knowledge of how to use them is readily available to anyone determined to learn. The same applies to still photography. The basic principles aren’t that hard to learn and the only limitations are those we impose on ourselves.

I did an audio version of one post and I developed a profound respect for those who are skilled in the craft of podcasting and sound editing. Like so many things there are rank amateurs (like me) and professionals. Yet the tools are there for all to explore and it is well to remember that every professional was a rank amateur at one time.

Along with their accessibility, it’s very true that these digital tools can give an illusion that quality results are easy to achieve and it’s equally true that there are people who think they are more skilled than they are but, are the tools to blame or the lazy mindset of the individual? Given this reality has the craft been as damaged as Lance seems to imply?

The ground has shifted
A great deal of generalized hobby information is now readily available on the Internet, along with niche information of every kind. As I wrote a few weeks ago, for curiosity’s sake, I searched for puffball trees and got over a million results.

This shift has impacted general interest magazines of every kind by stripping away the value proposition they once enjoyed as the sole source of such material but that’s hardly the whole story. They are also constrained by legacy business models and editorial mandates that are predicated on appealing to as wide an audience as possible.

It benefits all of us to have ready access to core knowledge such as how to build benchwork, lay track, do scenery and other techniques. Yes, the quality online will vary wildly from excellent to mediocre, which places the burden of determining its relevance where it belongs: on the person seeking the knowledge. And, for those who argue that this is the curse the Internet has inflicted on hobbyists, just go to the nearest newsstand or bookstore and look at the magazine rack. You will find print publications whose editorial quality reflects similar extremes. There is nothing new here. The Internet has just amplified the situation.

While the onus really is upon the reader, we give modelers far less credit than they deserve for knowing crap when they see it. The Internet has been around for twenty years now and most of us have developed a healthy BS filter. And we are talking hobby information here, not world domination conspiracy theories.

Print excels at curation, longevity and archival quality
Where print shines is its archival nature. I’ve often written of my enjoyment of a Paul Larson article series from the 1960s. A book or magazine’s longevity is a direct result of the quality of the materials used to create it. Furthermore, because of its physical nature and production costs it’s limited in the amount of information it contains. By default, those aspects demand a more thorough editing process and more consideration in the choice of material. The belief is that once something is online, it’ll be there forever. Will anything written online today still be available in fifty years like my favorite series of articles are? Technology fails or people give up their sites, stop paying hosting fees and poof, the content is gone. How much of this stuff will really survive in the manner printed material historically has? Would we be better served if hobby material with greater longevity found a home in print, while more transient information migrated to digital sources?

What do we want to learn?
The answer to that question starts with understanding one’s information needs. A trap I repeatedly see is approaching the subject from a one-size-fits all perspective. It’s human nature to think that our skill level reflects the norm for everyone. The audience for this craft is not the uniform monolith that many want to believe it is. There are modelers of every skill level from rank beginners who soak up info like sponges to world-class craftsman whose needs are far more sophisticated. I no longer purchase Model Railroader because I’ve outgrown the skill level they choose to serve. Their editorial content is not relevant to my needs or interests anymore and therefore I have no compelling reason to read it. To expect any general interest magazine, print or digital, to serve every level of need is unrealistic.

Additionally, some people learn visually, others prefer reading, or by listening. Craft skills like ours are best taught in one-to-one formats where an instructor can demonstrate the proper technique, and provide correction as the learner tries it for himself. Of course that isn’t always possible for everyone. Well done video can be a quality substitute that no magazine article can hope to achieve but even video has limitations compared to personal instruction.

There are no simple answers to the changes we’re seeing in our craft. Lance closed his post by saying: “The model railroad press is too basic to our own self-interest to let it become a marginalized bit player.” Do general interest magazines still have a role to play? Yes, I believe they do. I also believe that going forward their role will change in ways we’ve yet to fully understand.

Does our future as a craft hinge on their survival? I’m not that kind of alarmist. If things are not as they should be it’s because we’ve allowed them to reach this point. I believe our future as a craft depends far more on how we frame the conversation and view the work than on the presence of any media outlet.

I’d like to close by asking why do we have to frame these conversations as an either/or choice between legacy players and new resources? What’s so bad about working harder to understand the unique role each can play?