The Winners and Losers in Magazine Media: 2016
The Modern Magazinist delivers his year-in-review.
In many ways, 2016 sucked. Except for the stock market; if you were in the market, it was a bang-up year. Or if you were a Chicago Cubs fan. Otherwise, let’s be honest, 2016 was bleak: too many American icons died, our planet’s temperature grew ever warmer, and Kanye West’s ego still roamed wild. Then there was the presidential election.
But let’s set that aside for now. It remains a sensitive subject.
Wherever you stand on the outcome of the election, there was one clear winner: newspapers. The better ones — The New York Times and The Washington Post topping any list — emerged with greater luster and many more paying readers. The brutal back-and-forth of the campaigns demonstrated yet again that quality journalism plays a vital role in a democracy. Today, good newspapers are prospering again.
Will magazines, namely consumer titles in the news and analysis category, experience a similar rise? Too soon to know. We’ll need to wait and see as those numbers come in later in the year.
I’m guessing that books such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Economist, and a few others will see an improvement, if not a surge. Their reporting, which is widely respected if sometimes controversial, should be especially prized in the era of President Trump.
So, circling back to 2016. Generally, magazines seemed to hold their own. Not surprisingly, the trend toward digital continued unabated, but most magazines settled into a comfortable balance between their print and online versions. Self, unfortunately, did not, and it said goodbye to paper altogether. We’ll see more magazines bailing on paper this year, no doubt. Let’s hope not too many more.
Instead of a bloated, comprehensive recap or a year-end “Honors” edition, as I’ve sometimes done here in the past, I thought I’d simply offer some quick hits — ad hoc commentary — to begin the new year. And so…
Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair
No magazine benefited more directly from Donald Trump’s anti-press zealotry than VF. Sensing a tender spot, Carter (he who famously crafted the “short-fingered vulgarian” catchphrase many years ago at Spy), used his brand to go after Trump’s namesake steakhouse in Manhattan, after which our then president-elect had a public (i.e., Twitter) meltdown, which resulted in a yuuuge wave of new VF subscriptions. If this was gamesmanship (which it was), score one for Graydon Carter. Also, it should be noted that his lengthy pre-election editor’s column about all the reasons Donald Trump was unfit to be president was fearless, accurate, and a delight to read.
Mad Magazine’s Year of Badassness
Here again, credit Donald Trump for Mad’s newfound exuberance and its big newsstand gains. While many Trump haters argue that this is a moment for Americans to stand up and resist, Mad’s editors simply could not resist … lampooning the would-be president, that is. He was simply too large and too orange a target for the satirical mag.
My friend Susan Karlin, writing about Mad in Fast Company, said, “When the first Trump cover came out last year  … sales doubled.” The magazine kept at it, of course.
“We were surprised,” John Ficarra, Mad’s editor, told Karlin. “We already had Alfred E. Neuman on the cover. Who knew that if we doubled the number of idiots on our cover we could also double our sales?”
Murdoch’s National Geographic
Avid readers have been wondering if the much-loved Nat Geo would turn into a different kind of magazine, now that it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch-controlled 21st Century Fox. A little too soon to know. but the magazine just featured its first transgender person on the cover. Which, naturally, provoked a fair amount of coverage in the popular press. This may signal a new day for the magazine. Stand by.
The Feel-good Magazines
Is it just me, or are we lately seeing more titles dedicated to promoting a gauzy sense of general well-being? Is there a reason for this? Was it the rough presidential campaign? Many of these books, all presumably aimed at women, hail from abroad, so I doubt there’s a connection, but still. Three of the new touchy-feely magazines I’m seeing on plenty of American newsstands: Daphne’s Diary, Flow (which focuses on the tactile and aesthetic beauty of paper), and Happinez.
The Redesigned Consumer Reports
It was a creditable redesign, which was overdue. But that new generic-looking logo is a total fail, in my view. I’m sure it was reader-tested and had the buy-in of everyone at Consumers Union, but geez, what a disappointment. Zero personality.
New York’s Two Magazines
The influence of The New Yorker and New York have long reached well beyond the boundaries of Manhattan, although both books embrace a uniquely NYC worldview. Outstanding magazines both, run by amazing editors. No disputing their standing as best of breed.
However — and I may well be in the minority on this — New York impresses me far more. Because it’s the harder book to edit, by a city block. You’ve got to appreciate the craft, the imagination, and the sheer volume of first-rate content that goes into each issue. Unlike The New Yorker, which runs pretty much off several standard grids and which reliably delivers a handful of good reads, each issue of New York is crammed with urgent art, elaborate designs, and wonderfully inventive edit. Its writers are every bit as strong as those who contribute to The New Yorker. Every two weeks, New York pushes out a magnificent magazine, seldom disappointing, and one must stand in awe of what it takes and how well it is achieved.
Fortune Cleans Up
Visually, I mean. The book had become so grotesquely confusing over the last few years — hard to navigate, too typographically fancy for its own good — that the recent effort to simplify and tidy-up is a gesture that favors easier accessibility and thus a better experience for readers.
Worth’s Beautiful Gamble
I have no idea if Worth, in its latest incarnation, is earning a profit. At $18.95 a pop at newsstands, the biz model is hard to figure. But like every book that’s produced by from Adam Sandow’s boutique magazine group, it is a gorgeous piece to hold in one’s hands. The covers alone are worthy of being framed and and displayed in fine homes. Lately, Worth appears to be booking more ad pages from companies seeking to connect with its high net-worth audience. Glad to see that. A lifestyle/finance book this classy, this unorthodox, could only come from Sandow.
Motor Trend’s Car-less Covers
For several years running, Motor Trend has produced an annual awards issue featuring a cover that’s a radical departure from what readers normally expect. The super-clean cover focuses on a trophy. No cars or trucks or blaring sales lines. This year’s was stamped in gold against an all-white background. Sweet.
Jay Fielden’s Esquire
It’s probably going to be all right. Those of us who bowed before that book’s longtime previous editor, David Granger, mourned when Hearst replaced him a year ago with Jay Fielden. Fielden, though, is a terrific talent in his own right (he demonstrated that at Town & Country), and his Esquire, while a clear departure from Granger’s and maybe not yet fully reflecting his broader vision, is a damn fine mag for men of both style and substance. We’ll keep paying attention.
Those Coloring Book Magazines
They finally seem to be fading on newsstands. Good riddance.
Sad to See Take Stumble
A couple of years ago, in this space, I named Take (“New England’s New Culture”) one of the best new magazines to market. Then, as many had warned, it ran out of cash and halted production. Fortunately, for those who appreciate what publisher Michael Kusek was trying to accomplish, the magazine has since built a very lively (and attractive) Web-only edition. I prefer print. But, at least Take lives on. (For anyone interested, I wrote one essay for the magazine, which you can find here.)
And now, back to Graydon Carter
Three years ago, as a guest on Charlie Rose’s interview show, Carter tried to explain his lifelong love affair with magazines. Because I totally share his perspective, I will quote him here in these opening days of 2017: “There are so many great magazines out there. They’re inexpensive, you can buy them anywhere, you can give them to a friend … you can recycle them, they don’t need batteries, they don’t need instructions, and they’re just wonderful. I love them more than newspapers, and I love them more than books, in a way.”
Bravo, Mr. Carter, bravo!