Christie Taylor
From the July/August 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When a literary magazine dies, what happens to the poems, stories, essays, and artwork that have been published in its pages over the years? Not enough, says Mike Joyce, editor in chief of the Chicago-based digital magazine Literary Orphans (www.literaryorphans
.org) and cofounder of the Rookery, a new digital archive that will house previously published content from defunct print and digital magazines—an ever-growing collection of work that would otherwise be lost.

Scheduled to launch July 30, the Rookery will not simply acquire and archive content; it will host shuttered magazines in as close to their original form as possible—including design, art, layout, and navigation—so that by clicking a link on the Literary Orphans website, a reader can experience a magazine the way its editors intended, rather than merely glimpsing its text-only ghost. Joyce also hopes that the Rookery—whose name refers to a nesting place for birds—will serve as a temporary home for struggling journals that need sanctuary while their editors hunt down funding or staff.

Joyce helped found Literary Orphans in 2012, a process that taught him about the specific costs and challenges of running a journal—an endeavor that he says can cost anywhere from a hundred to several thousand dollars to maintain, typically without staff compensation. He cites time and money as the primary causes of journal death.

“Unless you have a lot of spare cash floating around, your life becomes wrapped up in making your magazine function through events, fund-raisers, and workshops,” Joyce says. “In leaner times, I’ve gone as far as selling my blood plasma to afford the costs.”

Not all editors will go so far when things get tight. Joyce asserts that one in every four magazines dies within three years of its founding. Once a magazine shuts down, Joyce says, he typically sees its online archive last only a few months, sometimes up to a year or two, depending on how long the magazine’s editor can afford to pay for hosting.

For Joyce and others like him, the loss of these archives has personal as well as professional implications. A fiction writer whose work has been published in small online magazines such as Connotation Press, jmww, and the Molotov Cocktail, Joyce not only depends on journals to keep his work alive, but early in his career he also found within them the inspiration to start his own magazine.

“You know that old cliché,” Joyce says, “that maybe only a hundred people heard the album, but all of those people went out and formed a band? These magazines may as well be great out-of-print albums.”

While news of dead or dying magazines often travels quickly, the Rookery encourages editors, writers, and readers to submit a journal for inclusion in the archive via a link on the Literary Orphans website. Once notified, Joyce and Literary Orphans managing editor and Rookery cofounder Scott Waldyn develop an individual agreement with a publication’s editor, and the group works collectively to transition the magazine and its content to the archive.

Not every deceased journal is right for the Rookery, Joyce says; magazines that need help more urgently, or that are easiest to move from one host to another—a process that can take months of work—are likely to get priority. So far the team is working on resurrecting two journals: the Fiddleback, a digital magazine that published its final issue late last year, and the Newport Review, a decades-old print magazine that reemerged as a digital publication in 2007 before going on hiatus in 2013. Joyce and Waldyn plan to include defunct print-only magazines in the archive as well—a process that may prove even more logistically difficult—and hope to adopt as many as a few dozen magazines over the next several years. Part of the beauty of the project, Joyce says, is that it won’t cost much to maintain, due to both the collective nature of the work involved and the space that the Literary Orphans website allows.

“We pay for an almost infinite amount of web space,” Joyce says, noting that he and Waldyn have remitted in advance all standard operating costs for the next two years and are now turning to fund-raising, as they hope to expand Literary Orphans to a print edition in the future. Down the road, old stories from the Rookery archive may be reprinted in Literary Orphans. Joyce also hopes to publish an anthology of some of the Rookery’s best digital content—both to serve as a reminder of long-forgotten literary relics and the editors who made them, and to bring new life to old work.

Ultimately, Joyce hopes that inclusion in the Rookery will not always mean the end of a magazine, but in some cases might provide the possibility of a transition. He has been in talks with Newport Review editor Kathryn Kulpa, for instance, about having her magazine reduce its output to one issue per year instead of folding entirely.

For those magazines whose doors are permanently closed, Joyce says, the Rookery provides a final resting place. “We see journals fold, with no physical artifact left for an epitaph, and no epitaph because there is no gravestone. Let’s just say we want the Rookery to be that gravestone.”

Christie Taylor is a writer and public-radio producer in Madison, Wisconsin.