Thoughts Following a Hiatus
Playboy goes non-nude, Details goes away entirely, and other thoughts on the magazine industry in late 2015.
And so, late December. Traditionally a time for summations, grandiose reflections (thanks, spiked eggnog!), and a bit of forecasting about the year ahead. In a series of quick hits, I’ll do that here.
You’ll notice that I’m coming in late on most of these topics. A family medical crisis has kept me away from—well, from practically everything other than scores of health professionals—for nearly three months. My holiday cheer is thus tempered. (A serious question: What to do with the 60–70 new magazines that accumulated at my home while I was away?)
If there was any upside to this miserable interlude, it’s that I learned I still favor print magazines over their digital counterparts. Sitting at a hospital bedside, I could have read scores of mags on an easy-to-tote tablet (and cancelled the print issues that were piling up back at the house). Instead, each day I chose to stuff paper magazines into my bags.
Why? I’ll probably get around to that in a future “Modern Magazinist” post.
Today, let’s do some catching up.
A No-Nudes Playboy
This isn’t going to work. Granted, I make that prediction without seeing any prototypes of the new-look book. But the Playboy being scrapped was already a terribly diminished iteration of the magazine that long ago sparkled with intelligent prose and glamorous photos (interspersed with pathetic/stupid/juvenile jokes, often at women’s expense).
The last time I purchased a copy of Playboy, just a few months ago, I found it was barely differentiated from the other lad books beside it on the newsstand. Most of those, featuring patently low- to barely-middle-brow fare, had been introduced within the last decade or two to take on the book that launched Hef’s empire. It’s no secret that, for way too long, Playboy has had too little to offer, except for the Photoshopped nudes.
And now, no nudes at all. Going forward, where’s the play? What’s the lane for Playboy? Will the new senior staff take the book upscale again? Downscale? Sideways?
If, a year or two from now, Playboy settles in at 200,000 paying subs—down from millions at its peak—that may well be its new normal.
Or, things could be worse. I’m not optimistic.
Details is a magazine I liked but could never manage to love, despite repeated tries. We were friendly, but I seldom felt those inner stirrings. Still, the announcement by Condé Nast that Details is going away was a surprise, and a sad one—akin to a long-time friendship that suddenly unravels and you’re left thinking, “Well, could it have been me?” I knew a number of Details’ editors and writers over the years (same for Playboy, actually), and they were—are—uniformly top-notch.
Unfortunately, the book failed to stake out a strong enough identity in a crowded men’s market. Too bland. There was no compelling through-line, or at least not one clear and sticky enough to support a large and loyal audience.
We’ll miss you, Details. Maybe not 12-times-a-year-miss-you, but still …
Time Out New York’s Great F**cking Cover
It arrived too late to be entered into most of those Top 10 Covers of the Year lists (although ever-so-smart CoverJunkie.com took note), but the December 9-15 ish of Time Out New York is a winner by our standards. Its big, all-type message, woven into a red, white, and blue winter sweater: HAPPY F**CKING HOLIDAYS. Ah, New Yorkers, we admire your unambiguous messaging!
The End of Maxim’s Experiment
Look, there’s no honor (or profit) in the spectacle of a slow, public decline (and yes, we’re looking at you, Playboy), so Maxim’s decision a while back to travel upmarket when most other books in its competitive set were treading water seemed like a sensible experiment. Have a try at it, why don’t ya, fellas? And they gave it a fair shot, they did.
Alas, zigging while everyone else is zagging does not assure anything except maybe vertigo, and here it was proved yet again.
Maxim briefly produced a credible luxury magazine for men. Trouble was, men didn’t care for it, least of all men who had once coveted Maxim’s minimally clad ladies. Too abrupt a zig. And attempting to muscle back into readers’ hearts with a more familiar format, acknowledging a goof, won’t be easy. Male readers may not forgive.
Over-analyzing Adele’s Rolling Stone Cover
Last month, the music site Noisey, run by Vice.com, published an inexplicably lengthy rant about the close-up photograph of Adele that graced the November 19th issue of Rolling Stone. The story’s headline read, “All Hail: How Adele’s Rolling Stone Cover Destroys the Male Gaze.”
Kat George, the writer of the post, complained that the image failed to be sufficiently sexy—which was not characterized as a bad thing, just an odd choice for Rolling Stone.
An excerpt: “Adele’s expression wears none of the self-consciousness that comes with being watched. She’s defiant, if a little perturbed. It’s as though we’re door-to-door marketers who’ve caught her just as she was about to recline with her morning coffee and paper….”
Call me an outlier, but I’m baffled. In the photograph, a tight shot, Adele is wearing a terry robe; her hair is wet, suggesting she just emerged from a bath; and she’s looking directly at us, pensively. I see no defiance. Instead, I see a perfectly suitable Rolling Stone cover picture. What’s more, how can anyone fail to sense its unambiguous sensual quality? What am I missing?
Labeling Sponsored Ads
You can’t fault publishers for trying to hide sponsored advertising under all sorts of clever labels. It’s a common industry-wide practice. You disguise paid content by attaching a little disclaimer slug. But employing the term “Partner Insights,” as Inc. does, may be taking sleight-of-hand a wee bit too far. Insights? C’mon, not really.
Listing to Port
British-based Port, an upscale lifestyle brand, has a lovely website, but its the company’s eponymous print magazine, available in the States, that has had us in its thrall for several years. It wows with its splashy, sybaritic photography and generally interesting product and people profiles.
When the publishing cycle recently shifted from four issues a year to merely two, we experienced a vague sense of abandonment. The editors put a brave spin on the news, explaining that by backing off to a twice-a-year cycle, they could afford thicker, nicer paper stock. Rubbish. No one kills off issues for fancier paper and the promise of more content. We’re not buying that positioning, and we’re sad that the biannual Port will, by definition, be somewhat less relevant from now on. A shame, really.
Art Budgets Run Dry
A phenomenon we almost always notice this time of year: lots of magazines unsupported by a rich conglomerate have by November and December exceeded their annual budget for cover art. Despite careful planning and good intentions, most of their art-intensive covers got front-loaded into the first half of the year. Of course. By late in the calendar, the coffers are just about empty. Which means we then get more stock art and inexpensive “high-concept” covers. Some of those are pretty damn good, but it’s a sure giveaway that the art department at these smaller titles are drilling deep into their imaginations. (Per custom, however, one can assume they remain steadfastly contemptuous of the corporate budgeting process.)
Silver in the Sunshine
It’s hard to understand why some books still spec shades of silver type on cover 1. Don’t they realize that at outdoor newsstands — and there are still plenty of those in big cities—silvery/foil type becomes nearly invisible to the eye when in sunlight’s glare? I first noticed this in Los Angeles. I’d stroll past a newsstand and wonder, “What the hell happened to the logos of those magazines?” The silver and some gray ones were completely gone—until the magazines were shaded. It’s one of those things that designers of consumer books don’t much consider, I guess.
What to expect, magazine-wise, in 2016? Some print-only books will say goodbye, some will merge with category peers, and a bunch will go heavy on the digital side of the business, betting money and talent on the future of tech. In the most recent example, CIO magazine last month made the move to digital-only. Like it or not, it’s where the action will continue to be for a while.
These are worrisome times, but also exciting times. When The New Yorker earlier this month pushed out an animated version of its print cover—quite a cool experiment for that trusty ol’ book—I felt reassured that the best and brightest in our industry are at last rising to the great challenges and opportunities all around.