I was passing along a well-read back issue of the Atlantic magazine to a friend when a bystander looked at the magazine and said, "The Atlantic? I've never heard of that."
Flummoxed a bit by the remark, I could only say, "It's one of the oldest magazines in America; been around since the 1850s."
On reflection, I concluded I should not have been so surprised. The Atlantic (of which I've been a subscriber for nearly 40 years), Harper's, the New Yorker and other magazines are aimed at readers who appreciate in-depth reporting, big ideas and excellently crafted writing. Typical American information consumers are more likely to glean their news from People magazine, US Weekly or the ubiquitous television entertainment shows. More Americans know who Kim Kardashian is than know who John Roberts is, and that information distribution jeopardizes democracy, which depends on a well-informed electorate.
"In the beginning was the Word," the Gospel according to John tells us, but the Word, the printed word, has become less integral to our information regimen than is the quick audio quip, the viral video or the spectacular photo. Even those consumers who read tend to read in snippets found in the 25-word factoids of USA Today, the "trending" insights of CNN or the 50-word briefs of Time magazine. There's no more obvious an example of where American information consumers have gone than in the ESPN horde of channels. Fifty years ago, die-hard sports fans immersed themselves in the minutiae of athletic statistics and devoured colorfully written game stories in newspapers and magazines with great sports writers. Today, ESPN provides not only an unending access to sports events but also a relentless blather about events, athletes and gossip. Talking about something, though, is not the same as writing about it or reading about it.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that an intelligent contemporary would have never heard of the Atlantic. It and other magazines like it are anachronisms, conveyors of thoughtful, well-crafted words in a world of sights, sounds and trending videos.