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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hey Hey My My...Magazines Will Never Die 

Here's a little love letter to magazines, in honor of Valentine's Day.

Colin Crawford's recent post on how IDG is redefining itself "as a web centric information company complemented by expos, events and print publications" has generated some 'attaboys' from a variety of media bloggers. The money quote: "we’ve changed the business mission of our organization away from print."

Rex Hammock's response, which notes the 266th anniversary of the first magazine to be published in the US (Feb 13), makes a few positive predictions about the future of print magazines. I agree.

But I also think that concerns about the future of magazines misses a fundamental point.

Simply because IDG has defined itself as web-centric doesn't mean that magazines are dying. It simply means that the printed versions are less important to their media mix. And printing and distribution technology doesn't make a magazine. Let me repeat that:

Printing and distribution technology doesn't make a magazine.

I believe that magazines will never die. And by magazine, I don't mean something printed and bound and mailed to me. Frankly, while I love sitting down with a printed magazine, I don't really care that it's printed. What I care about is that it's a magazine.

What do I mean by that? Magazines are a genre, much like novels are, with conventions and expectations attached to them. You know what I mean by a novel versus a work of non-fiction. You know what I mean by a magazine versus a newspaper. A sitcom has conventions, so do comic books. These conventions, these expectations, transcend the physical manifestation of the genre. I've read novels using a hand-held e-reader, and guess what?--they were still novels.

The original meaning of the word magazine--as a storehouse--gets at what I'm talking about. Magazines, as a genre, are storehouses of information and entertainment, edited and created to serve the interests of a community of readers. Here are the typical conventions of the genre: a letter from the editor, letters to the editor, departments, a cover story and feature well, and columns with varying points of view on varying topics. If you and I were creating a new magazine this morning, we'd probably map out some variation of these elements.

Let me tell you about my favorite sports magazine. It has great feature stories and photography, up-to-the-minute news reports, interesting editorial columns and commentary, and the scores and stats I want. You know, all the elements you might expect in a magazine. And that magazine is called Yahoo Sports. I access it online from my MyYahoo page.

Here's my favorite general interest magazine. Again, great feature stories and photos. Interesting news, commentary and criticism. This one's called The Atlantic, and I read it in print when it arrives in my mailbox, preferring to consume it from cover to cover before bed. I have access to the stories online, but I like the print version of this one better.

And my favorite news magazine? The Week, which I also consume in print. (I hit Google News every day, as well, but Google News, while being timely, lacks the tasteful editorial selections of The Week, and it lacks the weird and bizarre bits that make The Week as interesting as it is.)

I think the argument isn't really about magazines as a genre. If you consider the magazine conventions I outlined above, 60 Minutes is indeed what it bills itself: a televised magazine. The real argument is one of control. A typical view from the "cutting edge" is that static media (read: print media) is all about shoving things down the throat of readers.

Witness this quote from Colin:

"In the past media organizations controlled content and pushed it out to subscribers, today’s media has to deal with a world of social connections, networking and collective actions enabled by the Internet. "

You can find a lot of similar sentiment from Jeff Jarvis, and others. To them, breaking the hegemony of corporate media is what the future of online is all about. Online media empowers the audience to create its own content, its own communities...not the drivel that the MSM (the dismissive acronym for the dismissively-named mainstream media) forces on us.

Well, maybe. But magazines have always been about social connections, networking and collective action--even print magazines. Good magazines naturally create an audience which has a collective interest. And good magazines have always created good networking. And good community.

I titled this post after Neil Young's song, which dealt with the punk rock notion that rock and roll was dead. Punk didn't kill rock--it just killed off bad 70s rock and disco (and frankly, after watching the Grammy's, I'd note that it didn't really get rid of either entirely.) As Neil sang, "there's more to the picture than meets the eye." Same with the idea that magazines are dead.

The great critic Harold Bloom made his career with The Anxiety of Influence, which basically said that every poet wants to shake off the influence of prior generations of poets by denying their validity--by killing them off. To him, this relationship was as complex as the one between a father and a son. Ultimately, by stretching and defying the conventions of previous poems, new conventions were created...but the genre--poetry--remained.

Online tools will help to stretch and change the conventions of magazines. But magazines themselves will thrive, without regard to delivery vehicle.

Some other magazine-centric stuff worth checking out:

Sue Pelletier wonders whether she should be worried about Wikia's open source "magazine rack websites." I say: nope.

Bill Mickey notes that Google has apparently dumped magazines from their print ad sales program. In a blog post on last week's DeSilva+Phillips Media Dealmakers Summit, Bill quotes Rafat Ali's interview with Google's Tom Phillips:

Newspapers, however, have become the preferred partner for their program. “One of the things we learned was high frequency was better. Daily newspapers are a better partner for us than other media,” said Phillips.


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