About ten years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was a college journalism major planning a career in magazines. During the summer of 1996, I had a full-time paid internship with a national, NYC-based magazine, courtesy of a program run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Every week I attended special events on the future of magazines, entering the magazine industry, and behind-the-scenes at magazines like Rolling Stone, Newsweek and People, so I and the other interns in the program could get an idea of what we were getting in to. We were prepared for a lot of things, but the one thing we really weren’t prepared for was the death of the magazine.
That said, I guess my intuition was working, because of all the interns, I think I was the only one who went through the program and decided not to go into journalism. This wasn’t only because I was scared of the cutthroat competition in the magazine industry job market or the NYC rents I’d have to wangle, but because I had an inkling something else — the Internet — was going to be a lot bigger and better. That summer, I remember hanging out with an artist friend of mine, who was experiment with online art projects. He asked me what the Internet was going to do to traditional magazine and newspaper publishing. I can’t remember what I said, but I know that at the time, I really didn’t know. All I knew was that, based on my experience noodling with the web thus far, going into web development and design was seeming like a much better option for me. A year later I had graduated school and was working full-time as a web designer — and loving it.
Fast forward to 2008. I’ve now been in the web development industry for over ten years. I’ve managed web sites for government agencies, universities, professional firms, small businesses, non-profits, artists and more. I’ve also turned out numerous creative projects online, including online zines and numerous blogs, plus consumed vast quantities of digital content. And based on that, and a recent look at some print magazines, I have to say that the print magazine, which ten or twelve years ago seemed fresh enough, is seeming more and more like an artifact. I want to like the form, but like poetry, it’s one of those things I enjoy in my mind but don’t turn to on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. It’s true occasionally I will pick up a magazine or a book of poetry, but for the most part I consume things that are coming to be via the web in forms far different than a printed product. “Rich” articles, RSS feeds, interactive Flash features, blogs, videos, podcasts and other types of content are offering something that few print magazine are capable of.
As a case in point, let me pull out an old issue of Vogue Hommes (French Men’s Vogue) and go over a few of the reasons why, to me as well as an increasing portion of the general public, the print magazine is a relic. I’ve picked this particular magazine both because not knowing French forces me to concentrate solely on form, not content, and because it’s the only print magazine easily available in the house. (I do have a collection of magazines, largely pre-2000, but they are in a crate at the back of a closet. Another sign the magazine as a form is a relic?)
Just flipping through, this is what I encounter and some of the thoughts I have:
- The cover has headlines, but in order to find the associated articles, I’ll have to find the Table of Contents or flip through the whole magazine. Although this magazine isn’t the size of a Cosmo, which is so big you must find the ToC in order to locate articles, I know this is still going to take some time.
- Flipping over the cover, of course I don’t see the Table of Contents. No, there’s a two-page ad spread for Jaguar. I flip again and there’s an ad, and then a fairly succinct, one-page ToC. This is pretty good for a 14-year-old magazine, as many magazines today still persist in the annoying habit of spreading the ToC over pages, so that special features are on one page, while regular spots are on two or three or four other pages. And to get to these you have to flip pages and face ads. Sometimes you can even get confused over what’s the ToC and what’s an ad or what’s an article. This sort of thing does NOT happen on a web site!
- To get to the first bit of actual content, I have to flip 3 times, i.e. through 2 spreads and one ad. And the content I do find is a page of blurbs apparently having to do with vacation options. There are some pictures and bits of text. There is no interactivity, no links, no multimedia. This magazine has an excuse, as it’s 14 years old, but sadly many of today’s modern magazines are still stuck in the model of offering up “unlinked” text. Of course there are magazines going out with editors who include links as a matter of course — links to retailers, related/extended online content, videos, etc. — but it’s amazing how many do not!
- On page 12, 14 and 16 there’s an actual article, but it doesn’t deliver. The problems: 1) I have to face huge, full-page ads for expensive men’s luxury products to read the article, 2) the article has strange headers that almost make me think each page is a separate article instead of a continuation, 3) there are some nice photos but only three and not in large-enough sizes. I think about the same article on the web and know that it could be so much better: 1) no huge ads, 2) article might be split into 3 pages, but option for “view as one page” would be available, 3) photos could be presented in slideshow format or with an “enlarge” option. Moreover, the web version of this would have options available for printing, emailing to a friend, sharing on social/news networking sites (Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.) and of course could have a section for comments. Readers can create whole dialog based on the article, whereas to me the print article is just like a dead fish, sitting there and gathering flies.
- Music reviews fill up pages 28 and 30, but of course, this being a 1994 magazine, there are no links to music samples, extended online reviews, customer/reader reviews, or e-commerce vendors. Again, it’s true there are print magazines out there which consciously include a lot of “Go to http://www…..” links to enrich their content, it’s amazing how many do NOT. How these magazine hope to remain relevant is beyond me.
- The magazine is filled to the brim with reviews and ads of consumer products for the rich, self-pampering man — expensive watches, electric shavers, cologne, etc. But alas there aren’t any related customer/reader comments, e-commerce links, etc. As a reader of many online magazines, newspapers, and blogs, this is something I have come to expect, and when I’m in the doctor’s office and pull out a magazine, it’s something that vexes me again, again, makes me think of the dead fish metaphor.
For its time, this magazine was average and today, it would still be about average, which is a sad commentary on how little the magazine as an object has changed. There are magazines which are ahead of the curve, with innovative, web-ready print versions and dynanic onine editions, but far too many are laging behind. And as for Vogue Hommes online, it certainly does not embrace the web! Alas.