I grew up in a small town with a stunted world view and not much access to outside information. I have written before about how the Internet as an information outlet would later be revolutionary for me for these reasons, but this post is not about that. It's about other types of media that I did have in those early days.
Growing up, I had no cable television (only five broadcast channels one of which was mostly snow), very little radio (basically not 'til I was a bit older and received my first SONY 'boombox'), and only a few sources of print media. As it turns out, these print publications would be much more formative for me than the other available sources.
Here's what that entailed. My family received the local paper, The Lexington Herald-Leader, on weekends only. Apparently the weekday local news could never be important enough to merit the tax on their workday time. And when the paper finally arrived on weekends, I skipped past the provincial news pages and dove into the circulars. I learned about computer processor speed and RAM by reading the Best Buy Sunday ads, and I watched Moore's law pummel the prices down and drive the specs up over the course of successive months. We also received my parents' medical journals (The New England Journal of Medicine and Journal of the American Medical Association). These provided no fodder for me and I barely remember even cracking them. A doctor... I had no interest in being. And of course we subscribed to Texas Monthly because my father was a Texan... born and bred (and so am I). Texas Monthly was my first exposure to luxury marketing, because there would be frequent full page ads for the Dallas area boutiques of brands like Chanel and St. John and anything else big-haired, well-monied Southern women should be desiring. With so few information sources and so much time in which to consume them, the printed word contributed much to my understanding of and interpretation of the world.
The one odd exception to my parents' strict information diet — that was not otherwise related to my parents' careers or life histories or local needs — was TIME Magazine. I am not sure why we subscribed to TIME Magazine. There seemed to be no obvious connection to our lives. But we did. TIME was the only print media that entered our home that I read cover to cover. And it became the main dish of my news media diet for the first half of my life.
Here is what that meant for me:
TIME Magazine taught me how to read. When I was very small, I used to sit on my mother's lap as she read TIME Magazine. While she consumed the articles, she would simultaneously assign me a letter of the alphabet. I would then jab a marker in my fist and circle every word in the article that began with the designated letter. If I found all the words, I won! And who are we kidding? I won every time! The game was that easy and fun. As my mother turned the pages, she would select a new letter and the word hunt would begin again. After awhile, she began asking me to read the circled words aloud. I learned a great deal about letters and sounds and how they string together to make articles in a glossy weekly newsmagazine. Never mind that most of the words I learned formed a vocabulary I wouldn't understand for another few decades. 'Mommy, whatsa "Gor-ba-chev?"'
TIME Magazine did my homework. In elementary school, that time when homework more frequently means posterboards than papers, all of my presentations were collages from TIME Magazine. As a semi-artsy young thing, I very much enjoyed trotting over to the pile of back issues, retrieving a pair of scissors, and then dropping down in the middle of my parents' bedroom floor to flay the magazines. There were presidential postcards featuring photo cutouts from TIME Magazine's coverage of Bill Clinton, George Bush Senior, and Ross Perot. And four years later there was a bulkier 'election notebook' project for the same Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and some new guy Bob Dole. That one was weeks long and resulted in my camping out in my parents' bedroom for hours rifling through TIME Magazine for as much red, white, and blue paper stock as I could find. The red frame on each front cover would prove particularly useful. After these collage projects ended, I'd clear out my finished masterpieces, put away the savaged back issues and scissors and glue sticks, and leave a slew of semi glossy newsmagazine slivers all over the floor. The vacuum was not yet something I had discovered.
TIME Magazine marked the time through adolescence. A 'latch key kid' in middle school, I would ride the bus home from a frustrating day at school, run to our streetside mailbox, and then perform what I saw as my noble duty for my working family — the sorting of the mail. Again, with so few information sources, the mail was a particularly special delivery. But after the excitement wore off, most mail days were ultimately the same. I'd sort the lifeless Walgreen's circulars from the too thick Val-Paks from the fancy far off J. Crew catalogues from the ominous looking bills from the colorfully enveloped personal cards and letters. Wednesdays, however, were different. Wednesdays were TIME Magazine days. Instead of efficiently performing my mail sorting duty and flopping down on my floor to do my geometry homework, I'd spend the first hour of after school time on Wednesdays cradling a box of crackers and carefully turning the pages of TIME Magazine. It was a blissful, solo weekly indulgence that marvelously combined binging on snacks and snacking on information. For a heavily anticipated hour each week, I left the fervor of middle school insecurity and went to civilized and confident places far, far away.
TIME Magazine foreshadowed my career. In my teens, I began to realize that my favorite sections of TIME Magazine were not the news sections. They were instead the pieces about business, technology, and consumerism. At the time, I wasn't able to articulate this interest to myself as an 'interest in business.' My parents were doctors and I didn't know any other working adults (my friends' moms stayed home), so I had no real exposure to the idea of working in business. I just found that I naturally skipped spreads about Kosovo and instead lavished pageturns on stories about this new thing called Napster, some big sounding company called Exxon, and this term I had read about in the Best Buy ads — Intel. For some reason, these stories about how Wal-Mart had grown profits and how people were browsing with a thing called Netscape were just more interesting. Looking back, I had either experienced the businesses discussed or I had been tinkering with the technologies mentioned. Business and technology and American brands felt familiar in a way that all the other stuff in TIME Magazine just didn't. And this would end up predicting much about my future interests. TIME Magazine gave me my first taste of the information pipeline that would become my lifeblood as someone who works in digital business. And unknowingly at a very early age, I loved it.
The funny red-framed news catalogue called TIME Magazine came every week of my childhood and reassured me that one day I would finally go out into the world to see the places, things, and theories that it told me I should. But until I made it out (or rather, until we got the Internet), it supported me every step of the way.
Am I sad that TIME Magazine's future is in jeopardy? Only momentarily. Kids these days have far more comprehensive and specialized outlets for gathering information and for learning about the world. This was just mine.