Something more than a little unsettling dawned on me the other day: I’ve spent five decades in and around the magazine business, all on the editorial side. Half a century! How did that happen?
Well, to borrow a phrase from master lyricist Paul McCartney, it’s been a long and winding road. Occasionally bumpy. But most of the journey has been a joy, even when (especially when) publishing deadlines demanded stress-filled late-nighters.
Magazines have been my life’s singular passion. (That geeky teen who scattered scores of covers around his parents’ house so he could “analyze” the art? Yep, me.) The bug bit early.
Back in the era of Sony cassette recorders, and following six years of teaching journalism to Penn State undergrads, I began writing for popular magazines, and then, after a while, editing them. Local books, regional books. Eventually, national titles. Mostly glossies. (I was also briefly the editor of Folio: magazine, where, let’s just say I, uh, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d the then definition of B2B.)
I appreciate that, to many peripatetic journalists and designers, this may seem like an uninspired career path, with not nearly enough zigging and zagging for spice. I concede that, and I also embrace it. It’s the path I carefully carved.
Along the way, I have shared my great enthusiasm for all sorts of magazines—sometimes here in Folio: and also in other publications. (Side note: Folio:’s founder, Joe Hanson, once told me that I was the book’s first comp subscriber at the time of its launch. For me, that’s been a point of personal pride.)
I have offered my opinions about magazines and listened to yours. Sometimes—OK, frequently—I have been a grouch and a noodge, but that was my way of urging books to get better. The making of magazines is a special kind of art. I have always maintained that position. Some of you have pushed back with alternative views—polite notes and, occasionally, nasty emails. All in all, I’ve tried to be a cheerleader for our industry, but also a stone-cold realist.
And now here we are, in 2020, in the stone-cold early phase of a post-print era. Who woulda thunk it? I’ve written so much about magazines, and the magazine biz has changed so radically in recent years, that it’s time now for me to retreat from all that self-satisfied punditry. So I think.
So, what have I learned while writing these pieces?
I end where I began: Print magazines are in many respects a perfect thing. Even now, when almost anything analog is perceived as geezer-ish in a digital-dominant world, the best print books still rock. There is nothing else that takes their place.
Believe me, I have read magazines on all sorts of screens—handheld and desktop. For a while, I thought tablets would be The Answer. Well, not. Definitely not. Good intentions aside, I’ve found no satisfactory replacement for a well-made magazine all bound together with glue or staples. The experience on a device is different and slick and sometimes fun, but it always leaves me wanting.
Five years ago, I tore the editor’s letter page from a “Style & Design” issue of Condé Nast Traveler. The then-editor wrote: “[T]he more we find ourselves beholden to the utility of touch-screen[s] … the more we long for the sumptuous printed page.” That was absolutely true at the time, I believe. But with the disappearance of so many magazines, I fear that fewer people even remember the sensation of holding a fantastic—or even a crappy—physical magazine in their hands. Smelling the scent of the stock. Feeling its texture. The satisfaction of earmarking a page. Such a loss.
It hurts to report this, but barely anyone I know is a hardcore fan of print magazines anymore. Not anyone under the age of 40, that’s for sure. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already recognize, and maybe lament, if you’re a regular reader of this website.
Even so, I note that some industry vets believe that maybe we’re premature in preparing our gravesite remarks. Maybe the industry is just going through another of those disruptive blips, and the print biz will soon be rosy ‘n’ robust again.
No, it will not. The revolution is real, and it will be lasting. The internet, long feared as an existential threat to traditional publishing, has won. Turn out the lights at your nearest printing plant.
But here’s the great and fascinating and sort of heartbreaking dichotomy: While the print magazine economic model is fast collapsing, the surviving titles, plus the occasional new ones, are in some ways as terrific as ever. Best of breed. More clear in their focus, more lavish, all-around smarter in their execution, in some instances less ad-dependent.
In a sense, they are what you find after a huge storm clears and a cadre of victims, scarred but resolute, emerge from the ruins. They are the strong ones. (Never mind that the Brits still seem to have the greater gift for turning out devilishly cheeky little mags. Too bad they are barely sustainable financially.)
Then again, I may be wrong about the quality and durability of the survivors. I have been wrong before. For instance, let’s take the wayback machine to the year 2013, when I established the Magazine Medic Honors. The choice of my honorees that year weren’t exactly miscues, but, with hindsight, you can see that the darkening came quickly afterward.
So, looking in the rearview mirror, and also thinking ahead, respectfully:
THOSE ‘13 HONORS: I singled out Pacific Standard, Autoweek, The New Republic and Esquire for praise. Of those, only TNR and Esquire are still around in print, and both have been seriously hobbled. I wouldn’t bet my money on the recently redesigned TNR making it much past the 2020 election.
DO YOU EVEN REMEMBER THESE PRINT TITLES?: Among the scores of magazines I examined over the years of running my “Magazine Medic” practice were Where to Retire, Life Extension, Utne Reader and The Humanist. I observed that all of those, plus others, were ailing, editorially. Of the Intelligent Optimist, I wrote: “It may be time to alert next of kin.” Well, sadly, most of the books I proclaimed at death’s door have expired, withered or become largely irrelevant. I take no pleasure in saying, “I told you so.” Lesson: Books that refuse to invest in quality edit will soon enough be books that fade.
BUT REALLY, I TOLD YOU SO: Playboy has long been a problem. Beautifully executed, but increasingly out of touch with a swiftly changing culture. I said so on several occasions. The Playboy folks weren’t happy with me, even as they fiddled with their book in an effort to save it. So now? Seems to me the magazine, which is frantically changing focus (again), remains in a painfully lengthy death spiral. It’s hard to watch. Ultimately, how can Playboy hang on in a #MeToo world?
A MISJUDGMENT: As the Modern Magazinist, I went hard after Time when it brought in a new editor who was best known for his work at Time.com. The magazine, I said, was flailing, and it needed a strong, imaginative print person at the helm. Well, it turns out that Edward Felsenthal has been a more than capable steward of Time. I underestimated him. When my column was initially published, Time Inc.’s then-chief content officer, Norman Pearlstine, took offense at my remarks, and we went back and forth in this space about what I’d written. Years later, Time looks surprisingly sturdy (although I’d still argue for a redesign).
ON THE SALE OF TIME INC.: It was once unimaginable that the Time Inc. empire would collapse. But when it did, and its various titles dispersed to new owners, it was not surprising that each of the books took a hit, editorially speaking. For a while, they were embarrassingly feeble: Fortune and Sports Illustrated in particular were pretty shoddy, and I’m being generous when I say that. But, as we approach spring of this year, they have been refreshed and are fighting back. As for Entertainment Weekly (where I was an editor for a while): It seems harder and harder to justify it as a print monthly—especially as the logo still says it’s a weekly. Can we say awkward?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT MEREDITH PUBLISHING?: It’s grown into one of the behemoths of the domestic magazine business, essentially supplanting Time Inc. However—and this is the key point—while the company brilliantly aggregates data and skillfully manages its catalog of titles, it lacks any sense of adventure or spirit. No boldness. Its books are solid and they make money, and that certainly is praiseworthy. Actually, in this era, that’s huge. But let’s not mistake Meredith for Time Inc. or Condé Nast, which, at their peak, proudly produced magnificent magazines.
SO, AS TO THE DRAMA AT CONDÉ’S VANITY FAIR: As the Modern Magazinist, I was merciless in my takedown of the book that Radhika Jones inherited from Graydon Carter. Too cruel? I don’t know. Probably not. That piece generated lots of backchannel mail to me—including some from current and past VF staffers who ratified everything I’d said. As an update, I’d observe that VF, with the addition of new hires, has begun to improve, editorially—but mostly by tilting toward the sizzle Carter long favored—just at the time when Carter himself has launched a rather VF-like online pub called Air Mail. It may be impossible in 2020 to restore VF’s former glory. Times have changed. Honestly, I feel for Radhika Jones.
MY FAVORITE COLUMN: It was probably the piece about David Granger, the longtime Esquire editor, who I admired for his vision and his willingness to constantly reinvent his book. The man was a daredevil. Yes, mine was an unabashed arse-kissing take. After it was published, Granger got in touch and asked that we have lunch. He paid.
SOME SURPRISES: I thought for sure that National Geographic would slide following its sale to owners who’d not appreciate the near zealotry of the monthly’s readership. But the new team thoughtfully tweaked NatGeo, modifying its sensibility while still respecting its rich history. No easy task. Also: Coastal Living, a Meredith book, announced recently that after going newsstand-only a year or so ago, it’s selling subscriptions again. Didn’t see that coming. On magalogs (by whatever name): I don’t especially care for them, philosophically, but here they are, and the good ones are impressive. (See: REI’s Uncommon Path.) And another surprise: The stunning success of The Magnolia Journal, which celebrates Joanna and Chip Gaines’ design aesthetic. Yep, from Meredith. Real estate and decorating celebrities have not exactly supplanted movie stars, but this is clearly their time to shine. Finally: The Atlantic, which is newly flush with cash and has been one of our finest print magazines for years, unveiled a total redesign several months ago. I tend to like most redesigns. This one, not so much.
SADNESS: Nearly every week I hear about suddenly unemployed writers, editors, designers and picture editors. Yeah, well, everyone gets dinged in a transitioning economy, right? However, I’m talking about name talent, people who brought the magic to our great magazines. Today, many are begging for practically any low-paying job that comes along. This is depressing. Also, speaking of sad: The proliferation of double and combined issues is a depressing sign of the times.
WHAT WILL SURVIVE, LONG-TERM: The best of the city and regional books probably have a future in traditional print form. But as I said just a few months ago right here in the Modern Magazinist space, the magazines that are most likely to thrive are those “that specialize in personal and business achievement, art and design, fashion, travel, collecting, and everything relating to what we broadly define as a luxury lifestyle.” I stand by that.
ON “MAGAZINE MEDIA”: I’m not a fan of this term. I get it. I understand the necessity of it. But I’ve never used it and never will. To old-school me, “magazines” mean ink on paper. Perfection! The more elastic terminology—magazine media!—seems like an invention by the industry to justify the hiring of spokespeople and paid lobbyists.
There you have it. I look forward to seeing where the biz goes next—particularly how our new niche-ness may, of necessity, lead to better magazines. There’s lots of talent on the bench; I hope some of these vets get the opportunity to strut their stuff once more. As I noted above, I believe that bound magazines remain a perfect thing. They don’t need “fixing;” they only need nurturing by those who still love them.
So, my friends, seeya at the newsstand—provided we can find one.