Why bother with magazines?

Picture of magazine spinesI was recently caught up in a debate with UX Designer and Content Strategist Ethan Resnick who, among other things, bluntly asked “Why do we still bother reading magazines in 2012?” This wasn’t the typical death of print fear-mongering, but the genuine wide-eyed puzzlement of a tech-savvy 18-year-old.

Later I was riding the subway and observed my fellow passengers–people who used to read People on public transit–many of whom today are more likely to be preoccupied with their mobile phones.

Magazines Canada, a national trade association entrusted with furthering magazine buying in this country, just released some new research on the state of magazines in Canada (PDF). The document mostly provides guidance directed at print magazine publishers on how and why to integrate more online elements into their business. It’s filled with hopeful headlines like “Magazines remain strong despite online growth” and “Readership is stable.” Documents like this one remind us that people haven’t stopped buying magazines yet, while also reinforcing the fact that growth in print magazine readership has all-but-stalled. (“Flat is the new up,” as print publishers like to say.)

Magazine websites, by contrast, are booming. From 2008–2012, I oversaw the creative direction and business strategy for Torontolife.com, and during this period we experienced an almost threefold growth in our online audience, adding 339,000 new readers/month. A comparison of the public 2009 and 2012 reports from the Print Measurement Bureau indicates Toronto Life magazine’s print readership over those same years was more-or-less fixed at 730,000 readers/month. This flat growth (if you will) was the same for many of the magazines in the PMB reports and consistent with the latest Magazines Canada analysis.

Organizations like Magazines Canada need to assume a bright future for print magazines as a national necessity, for without them, their own group would cease to exist. But if you divorce the advice in this 2012 document from the raw factual data, you could equally make a clear case why someone not already too heavily invested should abandon the print magazine industry entirely.

All the same, there are reasons to applaud this Magazines Canada online report. The all-encompassing Internet is forcing radical change on every one of our traditional media channels. Those optimistic for the future of print magazines will point to the fact that radio survived in the age of television, sidestepping the fact that both are now undergoing huge disruptive digital transformation. Print publishers will need the sort of guidance found herein if they plan to prosper in the coming years.

As magazine readers and fans of the printed page, I’m sure we’d all love to see studies from Magazines Canada with titles like Massive growth in the magazine industry: Why we don’t need no stinking Internet. But the likelihood of such a document is remote and the data increasingly points to the opposite being true. Outside of the Style.com/Print experiment, it’s a very rare thing to see online entities making big investments in new print magazines. It’s clear that magazines need to invest in deeper Internet connections in order to stay relevant.

A few days ago, I was airborne between New York City to Toronto, and the lack of wi-fi on the plane rendered my iPad mostly useless. So instead, I found myself reading the in-flight magazine. In other words, I wasn’t technically reading the in-flight magazine by choice, and this caused me to try and recall instances where, when I had access to ubiquitous Internet–or television for that matter–that I’d chosen to read a magazine instead.

I pictured myself on an imaginary dock or a beach with a stack of magazines and books and nothing but endless available time. This is, of course, the luxury leisure fantasy: We promise ourselves we’d read more magazines (or books, or write more handwritten letters) if only we had the time. Magazines are assailed not just by the Internet, but by our increasing lack of attention. Magazines, like most things, are hardly immune to an increasing multitude of entertainment options that all vie for our precious free time.

In contrast to the web, there’s a clear allure to a magazine’s mostly distraction-free environment. There aren’t Twitter alerts or floating ad pop-ups, and we get to engage with our fetishized nostalgia for flipping through printed pages, getting lost in well-crafted prose and admiring big, beautiful photographs. All this stands starkly when compared to the quick hits and constant barrage found on the typical webpage.

Magazines are often full of surprises. We buy them because there’s a compelling cover story or they arrive in our mailbox because we’ve subscribed. When we crack open the cover, they contain all sorts of news and stories we didn’t know we wanted. I remember once being unable to put down a fascinating 14-page Harper’s magazine cover story that delved into the small intricacies of Roe v. Wade. I can’t imagine this story similarly grabbing my attention as a long online scroll, much less how I’d even stumble across such a thing.

In 2012, magazines survive because the web still wrestles with long-form journalism and with presenting photographs at the size and impact of a double-page spread. New trends in web design and editorial packaging and presentation are starting to tackle these challenges head on (Instapaper, Read It Later, Readability and so forth), but the majority of our web experiences are still with short texts and anaemic thumbnails. The popularity of Twitter and our increasing use of mobile phones indicates, if anything, that we’re moving toward even shorter texts and smaller thumbnails.

I once worked with an editor who was convinced your brain actually perceived text differently when read on screen than on paper, citing a study she’d read somewhere. Often, she would copy edit stories twice: once on screen and then by printing the story and proofing it a second time on paper. If true, this may be one cognitive argument for reading paper magazines.

Still, it’s hard to insert a current generation iPad or laptop into this beach/dock fantasy. Perhaps it’s the association of these devices with work or their necessary connectedness that makes them mostly antithetical to my imaginary getting away from it all. Of course sunlight, glare and sand also thwart their technology. But device manufacturers continue to conjure up new sunlight-readable e-ink and high-resolution retina displays that shrink the disparity between the digital and printed page. It may be only a short time in the future when cottages and beaches are full of electronic readers, especially when these areas are inevitably blanketed with ubiquitous Internet access.

So if technology can solve the device differences between a paper product and a digital one, will we still have need for magazine experiences?

A June 2012 survey of iPad owners by the Online Publishers Association indicates that 31% of them regularly read magazine content on the device, which can be interpreted as somewhat good news for the magazine industry, especially if someday soon we’ll all be using our connected beach reading devices.

But as an anonymous commenter on the Canadian Magazines Blog points out, “magazine content” and “digital magazine” are hardly the same thing. Indeed, the same study explains that twice as many people would prefer reading a magazine story on a magazine’s website over reading the same story in a magazine’s native app. Does this preference for websites indicates a comfort with the conventions of the web or does it points to a simple lack of innovation in most magazine apps. Likely it’s a bit of both.

However, something deeper may be true. In an article about Trapit, a brand new iPad app offering an aggregated magazine-like experience, I came across a telling quote from Hank Nothhaft, their Chief Product Officer. He says, “We like the idea of unbundling and breaking a [magazine] issue apart.”

Nothhaft’s notion of unbundling articles from their intended context upsets the very sanctity of the traditional magazine package, and in some ways, undermines everything we’ve come to associate with decades of magazine publishing. We’ve long trusted magazine editors to curate stories and to compose a publication that then exists as a discrete package of reading material.

The Internet often feels like a massive junk drawer filled with everything we could possibly imagine, including the kitchen sink. Nothhaft’s quote highlights a key difference between a traditional magazine reading experience and an Internet reading one: The former carefully packages articles into a discrete, self-contained entity, while the other is mostly built around loose, unbundled, unpackaged content.

Magazine-like social readers such as Nothhaft’s Trapit, or Flipboard or Pulse or Editions or Tweetmag, attempt to take a busy, unbundled and distracting web and re-package it in a way not dissimilar from how a magazine editor might. We consider them magazine-like because they give us a consistent and mostly-structured reading environment. But these apps also replace editorial intuition with mathematical algorithm.

For iPad users, a preference for one of these apps over another is essentially reduced to a preference for one algorithm over another, or a preference for how one app lays out content, in the way that with print magazines that we prefer one editor’s vision or are drawn to a particular art director’s visual style.

The explosion of User Experience design as the latest profession du jour in many ways reflects our increasing move away from the hand-crafted composition of most magazines and toward machine-automated storytelling. Picture a magazine art director labouring over a single magazine page or kerning individual letters in a headline, and contrast this with the one-size-fits-all template-based approach practiced by many UX designers. There’s simply too much content being produced in our digital universe for it to warrant the same careful bespoke packaging of print.

For dyed-in-the-wool print editors and art directors, it seems like sacrilege to suggest that someday their role may be replaced by an automated process, but let’s take a moment to roll the clocks back a mere 14 years.

In 1998, the dominant Internet search tool was Yahoo! and at the time it was proudly a “human-created and maintained library of web site organized into categories and subcategories.” Many of the (long-deceased) search tools from that web era were developed under the same conception that human editors were required–and ultimately better able–to give stories organizational context and meaning.

That year, a little-known upstart search engine called Google began gaining traction with the belief that the web was better packaged using a mathematical algorithm. Six years on, in 2004, Google had cornered 84.7% of all search requests on the Internet, and, as if to concede defeat, around the same time Yahoo! abandoned its human-managed directory in favour of Google’s technology.

In 2012, it seems presumptuous to say that magazines have met their Waterloo, but it’s hard not to find this search engine analogy appropriate: The question of whether we will continue to bother with creating and reading traditional magazines (in print or digitally) really depends on the value we place on human editors as our preferred craftsmen for compelling content packages. The massive success in the past few years of editor-less social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook–so popular on our ever-present mobile phones–does not bode well for the future of the magazine format.