[Today's ramblings were prompted by a recent Asylum thread between two publishers which took an unexpected turn.]

Print. On-line. Old. New. Established. Upstart. In the publishing world, these are the two poles. One's been around essentially since the advent of the printing press. The other is still a rather new phenomenon. One could be in a state of decline or certainly leveled-out growth. The other is still expanding. It's still the new exploratory frontier. It bypasses the usual gate keepers to be self-published and thus isn't reliant on venture capital. Instead, purchase a URL, learn the basics of HTML with DreamWeaver, FrontPage, GoLive or a similar program, pay your monthly server fee, start hacking away at the key board and bada-boom - you're self-published.

In lockstep with this startup ease, there arises a contrarious force - gaining respect. Stereophile's John Atkinson made an interesting point that occurred to me as well. How come on-line audio publishing hasn't generated any celebrity writers? It's not the term JA used but he clearly was referring to the universally recognized appeal or star power of a Michael Fremer, Sam Tellig, Robert Harley, Harry Pearson, Ken Kessler, Art Dudley or Wes Phillips. Everybody who reads audio recognizes them as key personages in the reviewing world. Whether you admire or despise them or fall in-between, you do know who each of them is. Chances are that you'll be curious about their findings even if it's only to vehemently disagree. They are, as JA rightly points out, known quantities. All on-line magazines combined don't stimulate as many chatroom responses as Stereophile, its writers and reviews do all by themselves. This popularity contest has no contestants but one solitary and perennial victor!

Now consider on-line publications with their sheer numbers of contributors. Not a single star. This doesn't necessarily have to do with how prolific their writers are, how well written, edited or presented. While we can probably agree that certain e-zines are less professionally presented or less carefully edited than their major print cousins, others (notably the SoundStage! network) have adopted standards and editorial staffs as stringent and well-trained as those in print. Still, JA remains right - there are no on-line stars of the same caliber as in print. I believe this has to do with a few things. First, there's the universal recognition that to get into print involves a certain rite of passage, prior training
and subsequent grooming - a certain base level preparedness before one is fit for consideration. Never mind that the opportunities -- vacancies -- in the print world are far more scarce than on-line. Print has become a buyer's rather than seller's market. (This became apparent in the past each time a print magazine folded. Its key writers struggled hard to find new homes in print. Most of them didn't.)

Second, the exclusive nature of the print media makes those who regularly get published stand out. It's a relatively small group to begin with. Regular columnists and those whose reviews appear on a monthly print basis soon become big fish in a small pond. These whales also have been nibbling plankton for decades - it's not as though fame and notoriety developed overnight. Contrast that with the web and its plethora of sites and cadres of contributors. Now we're knee-deep in guppies zipping through a good-sized lake. Third: one of the key qualifiers for what makes someone a professional reviewer in the public eye is getting paid (and more than just $100 per review). Those on-line publications who do pay don't -- and may never -- compete with the salaries or per-review fees of major print magazines. This reiterates the silent perception that you get what you pay for. On-line writers are cheap. Who cares what they say? Print writers are paid more significantly and it's nearly impossible to join this brotherhood. They're far more exclusive. They're worth something. They're the real deal.

What further dilutes the seriousness of on-line reviews is the sheer abundance of consumer/amateur reviews and the occasional troll and shill escapades. Quantity and rampant standards blur the fine line between dilettantes and so-called professionals (and this is not to diss hobbyist posters who often write as eloquently, passionately and backed up by real experience as their formal counterparts).

Everyone knows that print media "manufacturing" costs far eclipse those of on-line publishing. An editor or publisher of a print magazine becomes an expert manager over the available content pages to optimize who of his writers is rewarded with how many pages and by what regularity (one assumes seniority, ability and popularity are contributing factors). Viewed from afar, those with monthly columns and reviews clearly have the special support of the brass. And since serious money is at stake, these endorsements carry the added gravitas of risk & cash. That's not a trifling matter. After all, print magazines must sell, on-line is still or mostly free. (And what is free often gets no respect.)

Fourth and finally, another vital aspect surely is the absence of any formal education, certification or licensing protocol for audio hacks. In their absence, the two remaining major US print publications -- their editors and core team -- have become the de facto training ground where one learns the craft. Emerging from this boot camp makes one a professional (and one unlikely to transition to the web unless circumstances force it).

Wes Phillips did opt for the web for a while but earned his spurs in print like all the other celebrity audio writers. When he appeared on-line with his two SoundStage! sites OnHifi and OnHomeTheater, that cache followed him. As a known quantity, he was instantly made and this opened doors with the manufacturers. All other on-line publications must slowly work their way up the food chain, past the tweak and endless cable loaners before they're eventually granted -- but not guaranteed -- access to the serious stuff. As a manufacturer, would you rather have your new flagship speaker reviewed by Stereophile or one of us webbies? Which review will have longer legs and a bigger impact? Which reprint will carry more weight with foreign distributors? If you can get a celebrity rather than no-name web writer, who would you choose? Case closed.

There are some who consider audio print publishing a lamentable and destined-for-extinction anachronism of a bygone area. But doesn't that overlook nearly certain consequences? The demise of just one of the two major audio print magazines would clearly impact the industry at large. I'd predict a drastic decline in general credibility. I'd predict a powerful alert: something's terribly wrong with an industry whose main print platforms disappear. Whether you view the presence of competing publications in either format as a zero-sum game (as JA recently suggested another publisher might) or mutually beneficial co-conspirators, the demise of any key player would be a sad thing. Yes, the web has advantages but so does print. After all, much about HiEnd audio is
equally art and science. It's not even a discussion that it's a lifestyle luxury rather than vital necessity. The web is perfect for bargain hunters and appliance sales. When it comes to serious art in any sector, tangible contact and concrete exposure still rule. And while listening to gear is far more tangible than reading about it, handling a print magazine's pages is more tangible than scrolling with a mouse. Likewise, discovering an unfamiliar mag on the newsstand is more concrete than generating a URL referral on Google, a whale's opinion more substantial than a guppy's.

In the end, both formats enjoy their special appeal. Considering the overall picture from where I'm sitting -- a small and newer player who benefits from plugging into something which is provided by our peers, namely the playing field -- we'd all be the poorer if the mainstream press faltered or crumbled. It'd reflect dubiously on us all. Never mind that audio reviewing as such wouldn't exist without The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Webbies like us owe our existence to theirs. Wishing one's peers ongoing success is not only respectful and good manners but far more importantly, an act of self preservation. One's own niche is made possible only because of their presence. And perhaps it's also fair to believe that serious web efforts such as our own and those like ours create benefits and opportunities for the print establishment - though I will leave it to them to tell us what those might be.

In closing, I first heard the term zero-sum game uttered by Michael Douglas as the predatorial Gekko in Wall Street. I had to look up what it meant, too. As I learned, it's a pretty unappealing and narrow-minded concept especially when you believe that the world is what we make of it, our experience a direct reflection of our approach and viewpoints. Conversely, just because we are free -- and our writers not paid -- needn't mean we're not serious, sincere or professional. We're just not that kind of professional - except for me if you apply the getting-paid standard. However, we take a perverse kind of pride in being enthusiasts who do it for the joy and passion of it. Hopefully it shows and makes up for certain impersonal aspects that come with reading a computer screen rather than leafing through high-quality glossy paper. Simply, the costs of print are wildly beyond our abilities or even ambitions since embracing them could well replace passion with ongoing survival concerns. So we'd rather not be the biggest or best. We shall remain of managable size and focus on having fun. We kindly thank all manufacturers who have entrusted their gear to us despite being little fish in a big pond. While we may lack star power, we're like Sea Biscuit. We may be the smallest horse on the track but we don't know it - so don't you tell us either!