A review of the inaugural issue of Ink magazine.
What makes a magazine article good? I reckon if it makes people want to read it, and they’re satisfied after they’ve finished it, that’s a good magazine article. Very simple.
Or maybe it isn’t so simple. I’ve just seen the inaugural issue of Ink, which somebody left behind at my house the other day, and it’s pretty bad. It calls itself the March-April issue, though it only came out on 5 May, and at Rs. 200 per glossy copy and very few ads inside, it probably cost more to publish than it will ever make at the newsstands. You can download the whole thing free from their web site, too. Makes you wonder whether they’re really in it for the long haul.
The first thing that jumps out at you from the cover of Ink is a big yellow belly. Was the symbolism intended? I’m pretty sure they didn’t intend for the belly to upstage the magazine’s own masthead, but that’s what it does. Not what I’d want for the first issue of my magazine – but Ink seems to be run by unusually shy and retiring people. They won’t even tell us what their magazine is about. I searched the cover in vain for some paraphrase of the words ‘the hot new arts and culture mag.’ None to be seen. Nothing on the editorial page, either. Why the big mystery? Don’t they want people to buy their magazine?
It gets worse inside. The table of contents is a guessing game: what do you think ‘Beating War with Drums’ is about? Or ‘Dubbed Out Concert Footage?’ Don’t look for explanatory subtitles; you won’t find any. Worse, the table of contents is laid out in some bizarre arrangement comprehensible only to the person who designed it, with some articles left out altogether. Why?
It’s the same precious, sloppy, amateurish story all the way through. This is a glossy magazine, often with several pictures on a single page. The pictures are interesting, yet not one of them – not one – has a caption. Three members of the group of artists known as Theertha are pictured separately in an article on the group, yet none of the photos tells you which man is which! Even reading the article won’t tell you, unless you happen to know – as I do, because I know the man himself – that the founder of Theertha, Jagath Weerasinghe, is not pictured in the article at all. Why was that?
There really is no excuse for this kind of incompetence. It’s not just lousy journalism, it’s commercial suicide. An important reader segment for this sort of publication is made up of the friends and relations of people featured in them. By treating their feature subjects so shabbily, the editors of Ink are deliberately turning away paying customers.
This peculiar reticence also extends to the articles themselves. There are no author bios, no introductory blurbs to tell us what the articles are about. There’s a feature on the filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara, with a big photo of him and all, but his name only appears in the body copy of the article – and you have to read up to the fourth paragraph before you even find that. Unforgivable.
As for the articles themselves – the meat of the magazine, the thing you pay your two hundred bucks for – they range from high-school-essay bad to absolutely unreadable. There are three exceptions. Two are by Pradeep Jeganathan: a restaurant review and an article about sushi which seems to be the first in a series entitled Pradeep Jeganathan’s Tastefusion. I say ‘seems to be’ because the magazine designer has got the type sizes and weights wrong again: the series title, which should appear as a header bar, has become the headline, and the headline looks like a subhead. Despite this, the article itself is great. I hope we’ll see a lot more in this line from Dr. Jeganathan: he writes about food elegantly and mouthwateringly and he seems to know his stuff in the kitchen. Best of all, he knows how to write a magazine article. His restaurant review, too, was first class. Absolutely no quibbles with either of these.
The third exception was a review of Blue, a bad and silly book. This was by A.S.H. Smythe, an Irishman (which seems to make nonsense of the editor’s claim that Ink is ‘entirely a Sri Lankan enterprise’, not that it matters). Mr. Smythe’s review is an amusingly-written hatchet job, one that Blue richly deserves, but it is much too long. A piece of fluff like Blue doesn’t deserve more than a paragraph or two – to give it two whole pages is to dignify it above its station. Here again, it is the editor, not the author, who is to blame. The Blue review should have been given some blue pencil.
As regards the other articles, the less said about them the better. Though I’d like to know why some unknown graphic-design student gets a such big feature. Maybe her daddy owns the magazine. Apart from this piece of nepotistic tripe, the other articles are just plain amateurish – written by people who know (or think they know) a little bit about art and culture, but who can’t write a magazine article for toffee.
The above is supposed to be salutary, meaning (as perhaps only Mr. Smythe will understand) that it is intended to cure and preserve. If only for its audacity, Ink deserves to survive. It would be nice to have a real Sri Lankan arts magazine succeed. The chances are slim, though. Our arts and culture scene is tiny, and most of it is not very good. How do you write about dull, unoriginal or ugly art in a way that holds readers’ interest? You can be honest and put everybody down, but how long can that last before people get sick of your ranting? Or you can try to be kind to the undeserving, and end up sounding like one of those magazines which are given away free to anyone passing by, the ones in which all the articles are thinly disguised advertorials singing the praises of the restaurants and other firms that place ads in the magazine. Either way, the reader feels cheated, and won’t come back for a second helping.
If Ink is to survive, it has to go beyond all that crap and become what it really wants to be, and what we all want to see: a really good Sri Lankan arts and culture magazine. To achieve that, it will need a professional editor, a professional designer and some grown-up writers to write for it. It will also need a professional advertising and marketing person with enough power to make the editorial team face a few bald commercial facts. With a makeover like that, Ink may actually have a life beyond its second or third issue. I hope it does, but you won’t find me putting any money on it. Not yet.