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On Diskmags
by Puterman/Fairlight

There seems to be concensus among most serious sceners that some diskmags are good and that others are bad. Not everyone agree on which ones are good and which are bad, but in general I think it's safe to say that most people prefer eg. "Vandalism News", "Domination" and "Attitude" over "Rock'n Role" and "Scene World". This is also my opinion, as some of the 2 or 3 people reading this article might already know.

During a conversation with a group mate a couple of weeks ago, I realized that he was right when he said that although some mags are much better than others, there really aren't any good ones. What? Yes, think about it. How much time do you spend reading a diskmag like "Vandalism News" or "Attitude"? A couple of hours? Probably something like that. And well, not all of it is very interesting, right? Right. Actually, I can't remember the last time I read a really interesting article in a diskmag (disclaimer: I might be getting old).

Of course, I have to compare the mags with something to motivate my negative criticism. I compare them with other mags. "Wait, wait, wait", I can hear you saying, "are you comparing these spare time produced amateur underground publications with professional magazines?" Yes, as well as spare time produced amateur underground publications produced within other scenes. And I can't really see why people who are into indie pop music, death metal or feminism should be better at making mags than computer nerds. I write better code in my spare time than I do at work, so why shouldn't people be able to write good articles in their spare time? As soon as someone uses the word "hobby", I go get my machine gun. In the C-64 scene, "hobby" is used as an excuse to produce crap. But if you're not able to produce something good in your spare time, when you're free and happy and you're doing things you love, when are you going to produce something you're content with? Never.

I guess I'll have to say a few words about the purpose of diskmags as well... I'd say, without having given it much thought, that the purpose of diskmags is to provide a more structured commentary on what's going on in the scene than what you'll get at the various web sites, like, CSDb etc. It hasn't always been that way, and I suppose news were much more important before, in the days of swapping. When the scene changes, the diskmags have to follow. You can't cling on to the old ways for no reason, you have to adapt to your environment. It's called evolution. Do we still need news chapters? I won't try to answer that question in this article, but it's obvious that the need for news chapters isn't as great as it once was.

The purpose of this article is to try to make one or two of you readers think a bit about these issues. The perspective on the mags has been static for a long time. It's aimed at mag editors and people who write articles for mags, so it should be of interest to quite a few people out there.

Now, going back to the introduction again, you may not have the same opinion as me, but you have to agree with me when I say that diskmags can be improved. Yes, even "Vandalism News" can be improved. Can you believe it? But to improve you have to know what the problem is. So what is the problem? I got (part of) the answer to that too during the above mentioned conversation: lack of inspiration.

To write a good article (or to make a good demo, or to cook some delicious food) you need inspiration. You have to be interested in what you're writing about, and you have to want to do it. There's the worst problem for diskmag editors: they have to hunt people with a blowtorch to get them to write something. And when they finally get someone to write something, it might be boring, as the person they got to write it did it "to support the mag", not because he or she actually wanted to do it. (Some people will argue that information is the important thing, and that it doesn't matter if eg. a coding article is written without inspiration. Sure, if you're just after the info, anything is readable, but I prefer to read stuff that have a bit more literary value than an average data sheet, and I suppose most others do as well.)

Other things, besides inspiration, are also important, of course. Like the topic of the articles (which is of course related to the inspiration problem: if you're not inspired, you're likely to grab any old topic and write some crap about it, just to please your friend, the mag editor). You don't want to read Formula 1 news, movie reviews or debile stuff like the articles about girls in the scene, written by some retarded wankers and published in some early issues of "Scene World". Your topic should absolutely be scene related, and if it's original in some way, that's just great. Don't make the mistake of trying to revive some boring old topic like wired graphics or "is the scene dead?". We've heard it all before. To take another example from "Scene World", check out the article by Nightlord in the seventh issue. It's kind of an original topic, and he's obviously interested in writing the article, and thus it turned into a pretty fine article.

If you absolutely can't come up with original topics (that's not all that easy), you could at least try to treat the topic in some original way. Let's say you're writing a party report, you really have to do something special to make it worth reading, because most party reports are just the same old boring "we took the bus to Skovde, I met Dogkiller, we drank beer, we wrote a party scroller, we went home" crap. I'm sure it's possible to write interesting party reports, although I'm not quite sure how to do it. Please, impress me!

Another example of an un-original idea are interviews. Nothing wrong with interviews, though, it's just that 98% of them are absolutely boring because they're almost identical to every other interview you've ever read in a diskmag. "How did you get involved in the scene?", "What are your favourite demo/group/party/food/drink?", "Tell us some great memories from parties you've attended!" Why not trying to do something different, like interviewing someone about some special topic, and trying to make it look more like a discussion than a questionaire? And of course, don't make the stupid mistake of picking some friend of yours whom no one's interested in knowing anything about. Find someone who has something interesting to say! And of course, don't just send off that standard pack of questions to someone you don't know anything about. If you know a bit about the person, especially with regards to stuff related to the questions you are going to give him/her, you can make the interview a lot more interesting. And also, interviews aren't finished because you've received an email with the answers: if the interview victim said something interesting that you'd like to know more about, ask about that too and add it to the interview. That'll make it look more like a conversation, and provides much better reading material. Or just do the interview the good old way with a tape recorder, or on IRC, or something.

Another kind of article you'll find in most mags is news. Not much to say about that, a good editor will present news that are actual, well, news to you, even if you check every day. An editor who actively goes looking for news is essential to the news chapter. But just publishing a lot of news in the old "Dogshit joined Commando-Team, Bigbud left the scene, Angels released a new porn slideshow" style doesn't exactly make for interesting reading. Comments by the editor (eg. about releases) adds a personal touch, and comments to the news by the groups involved (eg. comments on why someone left a group) also adds to the reading pleasure. Of course, the news have informational value, so they might be interesting even if badly written, but again, I'm trying to give some advice on how to improve your mag, and a well-written article is always better than a poorly written one (unless it has to do with Formula 1, in which case it doesn't matter how well written it is).

There's another factor that can improve the reading experience a lot: writing skills. Of course you can't demand perfect English writing skills from a non-native English speaker, but if some poor Swede or Hungarian writes an article with crappy English, the editor should be able to fix it. At least the worst spelling and grammar bugs should be fixed.

And while we're on the topic of responsible editors, a mag without charts isn't really a mag, right? But checking out the charts in some mags published recently, I think some of those mags should either fix their charts or not publish them at all. First of all, there has to be a minimum number of votes. I'm not sure what that number might be, but less than 20 is definitely too little. Otherwise the charts don't reflect the scene in any way, and they're completely pointless. Second, they have to be edited by someone who knows a bit about sceners, groups and releases. You don't want to see names like Lacek and Wocek in the music charts, or "Prometheus Unbound" by The Sharks in the demo charts. Third, even if you manage to get more than 20 people to vote, it's not worth shit if most of them are friends of the editors, as that'll make the voting very unbalanced, just like it'd be if any group of people dominated the voting.

Most of the stuff above has to do with writing the articles, which isn't necessarily the job of the editor, but I've got some random thoughts to share about editing a mag too. Standard disclaimer: I've never edited a diskmag, so rag on me for not knowing shit about it if you have to. I have a feeling some people might feel like doing that after reading this article.

Obviously, the editor has to be active if he's going to produce a good mag. He or she can't just lean back and wait for others to write the mag and edit the standard chapters (charts, news, editorial etc.). As an editor, you have to make sure that you get the kind of articles you want for the mag, or you have to write them yourself. You have to be active in pushing people to write stuff for you. (Almost a paradox, considering the stuff written above about people being pushed into writing articles, although they're not enthusiastic about it. If you do it the right way, you'll get people to write good articles for you. See next paragraph. Also see the footnote, which isn't really a footnote, but I didn't want to add it right here.)

I'll take Cactus as an example of good editorship. (What a coincidence that he's the example of a good editor in his own mag, right? It's not a coincidence. He's paying me to write this paragraph.) As you might have noticed, I've been writing these coding articles for "Attitude". Lately I've had problems coming up with ideas for these articles, but then Cactus has provided me with ideas instead (so he should get credited as original supplier at CSDb). That may sound simple, and it probably is, but it's the kind of help an editor should be able to provide. And if an editor doesn't have some kind of vision about what kind of articles he/she wants to publish, releasing a mag suddenly looks very pointless, which is another reason why editors shouldn't rely on others to produce their mag.

One of the most important duties of a diskmag editor is to get someone competent to write reviews. Editors often write reviews of other mags themselves, but seldom write demo reviews (because they're mag editors, not demo coders, doh). Demo reviews are extremely important, as demos are what the scene is all about these days (a resurrection of "Gamer's Guide" would be pretty pointless, wouldn't it?). If the editor can't get anyone to write demo reviews, that's just a proof that he/she really isn't interested in the scene, and if that's the case, what's the point of making a mag? "But that's just your opinion", I can hear you say (of course it is), "not everyone thinks the releases are the most important thing in the scene!" Right, some people claim that the important thing is friendship, and we can go shove our demos up some arbitrary body opening if we're not friendly. Right, so let's say friendship is the most important thing, then what's the point of making a mag? To make new friends? I could think of better ways... So go get someone to write kicking reviews!

Before we end this little article, there's one last thing about the editor's duties I'd like to mention. Although it should be obvious, I think most people would be a bit shocked if it happened to them: it is the editor's duty to refuse to publish an article that isn't good enough. This could demotivate some people, but if you can't take a little negative criticism, maybe you should find something a bit more harmless to spend your time on, like collecting teddy bears. After all, think about the poor readers, they're the ones who will really suffer if you publish whatever crap people write (and of course, if the readers suffer, they'll make the editor suffer as well). Now I'll just hope that Cactus won't take my advice literally and refuse to publish this article...

To wrap this up in a nice way, I guess I'll have to answer the question "So what are the odds that the mags will actually become really good sometime in the future?" Very high, unfortunately. They'd need more dedicated people helping out, but unfortunately the only one who's actually working on most mags is the main editor. I can imagine that an all-star team of editors and article writers could produce something really good. I have some hopes for "Attitude's" future, so I hope it won't fall down again, like "Vandalism News" seemed to do when Ed and Joe got tired of writing demo reviews (although I didn't agree with much of the stuff they wrote, the reviews were always interesting). For some mags the situation seems to be hopeless: "Rock'n Role" will never be readable with such a horrible magsys, "Arachnophobia" might have improved slightly with time (ie. they've removed the Formula 1 crap), but is basically just as boring as ever, and while the "Scene World" editors claim that they're improving with each issue, I think the idea of cutting and pasting large portions of the text from the web or announcement mailing lists has actually made the mag slightly worse than it was before, although some people would consider it impossible for that publication to get any worse at all.

"The Beergarden" feels kind of fresh, probably due to Tomz' hostile rants and the decent magsys, while "Internal" looks good, but doesn't have any interesting contents. Despite the mostly negative words above, "Vandalism News" and "Domination" are still much better than most other mags, and lately "Attitude" has also risen to their level (obviously Cactus had to pay me even more to get me to write that sentence). Some of the stuff written for the next, very delayed, issue of "Publication" is also nice, so it'll be interesting to see if that one cat get back to a regular release schedule and improve enough to be mentioned among the proportional ones in "The Beergarden". And, er, where did that mag from DMagic go? Was it September 2001 that was the scheduled release date for issue one?


Footnote: Some less talented or ambitious people claim that the only reason why their releases are rated low is that some "elite sceners" have taken an irrational decision to put these people down regardless of the quality of the releases. This is of course nonsense. Releases are to the greatest extent rated for their quality. Of course, if the producers of some release try to come up with such stupid explanations for their lack of success, that might affect the rating of their releases as well...


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