Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why and How Magazines Will Survive

With fewer readers and less advertising, periodicals of ink on paper seem doomed to disappear. But they won’t.

A survivor of an even more acute crisis at the dawn of TV can testify that magazines will adapt and survive. The reasons are embedded in the human desire not only to know what’s happening in the world but understand its deeper meaning.

The Internet stuffs Americans with information but leaves them starved for understanding, a task that has moved up the media food chain to newspapers like the New York Times. Yet beyond that daily context lies a complex world unseen by sentient members of the best-educated generation in human history.

Magazine editors are unique among journalists in that they invent their readers. Rather than report news over which they have no control, they fill pages with whatever interests or obsesses them and, like magnets, draw attention of those who find the results to their taste, delivering what one editor called an attitude toward the world on a regular basis.

TV arrived in the 1950s and took away magazines’ function of comforting entertainment, killing off many but nudging survivors toward special interests by age, gender and sophistication. Fiction-filled women’s magazines gave way to Cosmopolitan and Self and later Ms.; Esquire went from barber-shop pinups to sharp cultural comment.

It was soon joined by New York, which last week suffered half-death in print, giving birth to the New Journalism to mirror a new kind of politics with a new kind of reporting. Tom Wolfe wrote about Radical Chic and Gloria Steinem profiled the man who was moving into the White House in 1968 ("When Richard Nixon is alone in a room, is there anyone there?")

As a magazine editor during that time, I learned that the job meant more than telling people what they want to know. More important was telling them what they don’t know they want to know until you tell them.

That opportunity still exists and is filled by digging under the surface from magazines such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone along with hundreds of smaller circulation and unfamiliar names that cater to those who want to go beyond what social critic Lewis Mumford a century ago called “deprivation by surfeit” in our society,” the increasing production of everything that ignores “the need for evaluation, correction, selection and social assimilation.”

Unseen but important, in a society that has made a profit center out of Attention Deficit Disorder, thousands of magazines will continue to produce context and correction for those who want and need it.


Anonymous said...

A lifetime of asking "why" has made me a lover of magazines because they have the room and the time to answer.

Frankly Curious said...

I really like what you have to say about content and I think you're right. Given that you've been in the business, I'm interested in your take on the economics. My understanding is that newspapers are in such a bad situation not because of general advertising (Sale at Target!) but because the classified market has died due in large part to Craigslist. I know magazines have had classifieds too, but they never seemed as economically important. Also: magazines are just cheaper to produce. What do you think of those ideas?