Thursday, October 16, 2014

Magazines in the Museum

My local library has a magazine newsstand that is about forty feet long and eight feet high.  There are a couple of offshoots, but I won’t go down that road.  Every magazine enjoys a full frontal display, enabling me to read the cover lines from ten feet away.  Each magazine is framed in its own canopy, hinting it will last forever.

I would be well within my right to complain at this point about the high taxes that pay for this sprawling newsstand, even though I have never seen it attract a crowd beyond the few locals who can really work up a sweat over “Vogue Knitting.”  But I won’t.  This is meant to be a paean to magazines, my modest song of joy prompted by a snarky, but thoroughly understandable, piece by Laura Hazard Owen @gigaom entitled, “It was great having you, magazines. Let’s just say goodbye now.”
Ms. Owen tells us she subscribed to 14 magazines as a teenager and only seven still exist.  “Jump,” the magazine that got her through those difficult years, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.  The writer gets a little closer to home when she talks about “The New Yorker” and that 20,000-word piece on Russia.  I’ve just tossed the premier issue of “Dr. Oz Magazine” and that decision prompted a degree of angst.  But dealing with “The New Yorker” is much more complex.

I have designated spots in my office where I place copies of TNY that I haven’t read.  I have a pile for the issues that I have browsed, cut out the cartoons, just dipped into, or am thinking about reading. I don’t have a pile for magazines I’ve finished because I rarely get to that point.  Or perhaps I don’t remember because one issue appears on top of the other and after a few years of dutiful subscription, one is looking at tonnage that reminds me of my responsibility to the profession that bred and fed me.

I was thinking about Ms. Owen’s remarks about the decline of print magazines as I strolled through the halls of my vast local library.  Of course, it is true.  Newsstand revenue, advertising revenue and subscription revenue are on an inextricable decline and digital revenues, though showing considerable promise, haven’t offset this decline.

When I was at MPA, the magazine association, we struggled to define a magazine in a digital, multi-platform world.  The prevailing notion was that a magazine represents branded, edited content and that characteristic would be the differentiator no matter what digital platform the content was displayed on.  The perceived value of the brand and an intelligent editing would be the differentiator that separated magazines from what was coming down the pike, such as Flipboard, which has said it wants to be like “Vogue” in terms of reader engagement.  One way to do this is to carry video ads sponsored by Chanel. That’s apparently in the works.

A magazine is curated by experienced and loving hands.  Publishers are reluctant to unbundle a magazine or curate content the way Flipboard does because that move strikes at the heart of the value proposition. Industry platforms like Next Issue Media have talked about curating content across content verticals from the various publishers, but that remains to be seen.

On my private library newsstand, I counted more than 200 popular consumer magazines displayed, which likely constitute 80-90% of total magazine circulation in the U.S.  Since I had the place to myself, I could walk the aisles, dip into a magazine, and peruse it at my leisure.  I first went to magazines I had been involved with as publisher or editor, including Bicycling, Runner’s World, Backpacker, Organic Gardening, Scientific American, Men’s Health and others. It was fun to scroll the mastheads looking for old friends and to congratulate, by moving my library lips, editors and designers for vast improvements in the titles.  But in the basic content and format, the special-interest magazines in this crowd were not remarkably different. I found “Bicycling” a little “cheekier”--perhaps they borrowed some of that tone from sister publication “Men’s Health” which has been able to maintain is muscular and irreverent editorial manner for more than fifteen years.  If imitation is the finest form of flattery, judging from how much “Men’s Fitness” has mimicked its competitor, “Men’s Health” has flattery in abundance.

I don’t subscribe to the special-interest sports magazines mentioned earlier and rarely read them. But I’m still a runner and cyclist and an overall fitness enthusiast. It’s just that I’m not often in the market for a $3000 bike or a $300 running shoe.  Moreover, I can get most of the basic, sports-related information online.  I had once thought that special-interest magazines might be largely immune to the ravages of digital.  Now I’m not so sure.

I flipped through the October issue of Time Magazine with the cover story, “How to Eat Now.”  I read the magazine in its entirety and don’t think I found anything new to me.  I felt the same about “The Week,” but understand that the magazine is profitable because when launched, the late Felix Dennis was smart enough not to take on a New York City publishing head count and cost structure.

To a large extent the fate of magazines seemed to be playing out in these spacious library shelves.  Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, Esquire and others in the fashion and culture sectors are heavy, thick with ads, and breathing life.  If you are patient enough, you can find an article about a philosophy student who left a phenomenology class and took up mixed martial arts fighting.  Or, if you have the stomach, learn how to skin a rabbit after wading through 200 pages of advertising.  It’s all there in these rich, catalog offerings.

Others have predicted that high-end glossy magazines such as “Vogue” would survive, news magazines would disappear, and special-interest magazines would be a mixed bag.  I don’t disagree with that.  Whatever the trajectory for magazines, it seems inevitable, especially as mobile becomes the dominant platform, that magazines will become uncoupled, as least as an alternative, and personalized in the best sense of the word. 

On my library roaming, I was particularly surprised by “Scientific American,” where I worked a decade ago.  I recall at that time the magazine was struggling with its identity, trying to reach out to a larger constituency of consumers and advertisers. In the process, the editorial got a little softer and the magazine seemed to flounder. Now it looks beautiful and sophisticated, and doesn’t dumb down science.  The magazine has editors for biology, evolution, energy, medicine and the brain.  I enjoyed staring at the cover of Scientific American as much as looking at Jennifer Lawrence on “Vanity Fair.”

When I recall that the first issue of “Scientific American” was published August 28, 1845, I am reminded to be less glib about my predictions.

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