The End of an Era for the Magazine Industry
What does the departure of four top editors say about the future of magazines?
When Nancy Gibbs, a widely respected editor-in-chief, announced this month that she’s leaving Time, Time Inc. promptly named her successor. It was not, as might have been expected, a senior deputy from the ranks of the print newsweekly. Nor was it a rising star plucked from another book. Nope. The new EIC at Time is the journalist who’s run the magazine’s online unit.
That tells you pretty much all you need to know about the state of the magazine industry in 2017.
Overall, the picture is (to be kind) concerning. Some of our most venerated magazine makers are walking away — stunningly, four in the last several weeks. None hinted at plans to take charge at another title. They are all, instead, looking toward unspecified “new challenges” elsewhere. As if running a major glossy in 2017 wasn’t challenging enough (I kid).
So, editors are leaving, the ads have already gone, and audiences are clearly reorienting, at last, to digital reads.
If you own shares of Google or Facebook, congratulations; your retirement kitty looks to be growing fatter. However, if, like me, you’ve spent your life reading/making/creating/fixing traditional magazines, these feel like something approaching the end times. (And yes, that’s a gross stretch, for effect.)
Realistically, I’d say here’s a fact you can bank on: we are probably not ever going to Make Magazines Great Again, to borrow and corrupt a now-familiar phrase.
Some context: About ten years ago, during the recession, virtually all magazines suffered. Some were slaughtered. The weakest died horrible, perhaps justifiable, deaths. But the strong survived. Some of those got better.
Forced to reformulate, they sharpened their focus and, in some instances, even reinvented themselves. From a product standpoint, our best big magazines are damned fine these days (though, in my opinion, they remain overly predictable and not nearly as inventive as many of Britain’s niche-oriented books).
When assessing the state of today’s post-recession books, including trades and regionals, you cannot remark on their quality without noting the excruciating belt-tightening that, in many places, has deprived good magazines of their top talent. Way too many A-listers are sitting on the sidelines these days. Lots of editors are making do with second-tier (and, critically, less expensive) talent. We all know this to be true, and it’s a shame.
Unfortunately, but maybe understandably, audiences have not always journeyed with us for the trek into this not-so-wonderful world of scaled-back books. They’ve meandered, lost interest.
My sense is that the magazine generation — those who grew up with print magazines and, for whatever reasons, found them indispensable — is essentially gone. I come across rather few people who are marginally interested in magazines, fewer still who think of them as among life’s treasures.
When I offer that observation in a public setting, folks sometimes counter that no, this cannot be accurate — there are still legions who are deeply devoted to reading magazines. Legions? Well, certainly thousands, possibly even millions. But not enough.
In a country the size of the U.S., magazines no longer command the cachet and influence they once did. I think that’s indisputable. And this is especially so among millennials. Consider this not so much a complaint as an observation. It is not galling, just another sign of the times.
Where’s the excitement, the anticipation? Where’s the street buzz about the art of great magazine making? (Sure, sure, there are exceptions here and there — mainly among highly targeted books — and we can talk over lunch about the ones that are totally killing it.)
The quartet of elite magazine editors who recently announced their departures (Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, Cindi Leive at Glamour, Robbie Myers at Elle, and Nancy Gibbs at Time) aren’t leaving while the going’s good. The good ended a while ago. They are leaving before the going gets worse. Tough budgets, layoffs, the further erosion of editorial standards — these things are harsh, unbearable irritants to editors sworn to upholding quality — and so it’s no shock that high-profile vets are saying goodbye to all that.
Adweek, in addressing the spate of recent retirements, wrote that the industry “Knows ‘Winter Is Coming.’” Brian Stelter, CNN’s media maven, said in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter that “it’s not a coordinated exodus. But it’s not entirely a coincidence. The transition to digital has been grueling.”
Audiences, advertisers, industry professionals, shareholders, and the adherence to lofty standards have all paid a big price in that transition.
(An aside, to emphasize how things have changed over the years: When I worked in the Boston office of Time Inc., back in the ’80s, there was a locked door that separated the edit from the business suites. Locked! Today, a much less potent Time Inc. no longer even has an editor-in-chief to enforce a clear separation between church and state. There is no door, nothing.)
Look, I yield ground to no one in my insane devotion to magazines. I collect them as if they were precious jewels. I’ve been an editor and writer at titles on both coasts and in between. I’ve written about magazines — in this space and elsewhere — for maybe a decade. There was even a time, I’m embarrassed to confess, that I chose airlines based in part on the in-flight magazines they provided.
In short, magazines have been my love and my livelihood nearly all my adult life. It affords me zero pleasure to observe their slow, steady decline. I cherish them, but I cannot look you in the eye and pretend that those of us who make and joyously consume magazines are not an abysmally small club these days.
The editors tapped to run Vanity Fair and Glamour and the others (will Jann Wenner continue edit Rolling Stone if he’s successful in selling his book?) — well, I wish them the best. Courage. Strength. Self-respect. They will be managing “brands” with a catalog of “extensions.” It won’t be a cakewalk.
I look forward to seeing what they do, particularly at Time. The magazine that invented the idea of a newsweekly needs to be reimagined for the future, as I have said in this column more than once.
One way to avoid depression in this environment is to view these key personnel changes, plus others surely on the horizon, as further opportunities for rethinking our magazines. Who could quarrel with rethinking?
Nevertheless, I believe we may one day look back at the fourth quarter of 2017 as the turning point, when the transition from print’s primacy to digital’s was all but officially affirmed. And I say that from the perspective of someone who totally embraces the digital universe.
Would this final tilt be such a bad thing?
Well, no, probably not.
OK … OK … I’m … rethinking.