Thursday, January 26, 2012

What, if anything, is a magazine?

A recent New York Times article tells the store of Esquire magazine's troubles in 2008 and 2009, and how it was able to survive them by adapting to the world of online publishing.

I'm not sure I've ever read Esquire in either print or digital form.  For that matter, I don't buy magazines much any more, but I do follow the (free) online content of some, particularly The Economist.

So do I, or does a digital Esquire subscriber, read magazines?  Pretty clearly yes, just as there's pretty clearly more to a magazine than its print edition.  So what's a magazine?  Some thoughts:
  • A classic magazine is almost always periodical, though a few publish irregularly.  On the web, content generally goes up when it's ready, regardless of the print publishing schedule.  Let's say a magazine is an ongoing publication.  There may or may not be a sequel to your favorite book, but part of publishing a magazine is the promise that there will be more.
  • A magazine is not tied to any particular individual.  Even in cases like Forbes or Oprah, where a particular individual's identity is an integral part of the brand, the actual magazine is the work of many people.  It is an institution, that can survive the departure of any particular person (though in some cases better than others).  This is where we can probably best see the tie to the earlier sense of magazine as a storehouse, and it's also a distinguishing feature between an online magazine and a blog.
  • Even though it's a group effort, a magazine does have a personality, or at least a good one does.  Even if its contributors don't always see eye to eye, there will be something about having that particular mix of opinions and styles that makes the magazine what it is.
From this point of view, as long as there are ongoing publications with multiple contributors and a recognizable personality, there will be magazines, regardless of the actual mechanics of publishing.

A corollary to that is that there ought to be just as much of a market for magazines as there ever was.  The puzzle, as always, is reaching that market and making sure everyone still gets paid, which is why I find it interesting that the headline of the Times article is in past tense: "How Esquire Survived ...", not "How will Esquire survive ..."


earl said...

You fail to say what distinguishes a magazine from a newspaper.

While I hate, hate, hate trying to read a magazine or a paper online, there is the very nice feature that if you do, you can give me the link.

David Hull said...

I do indeed.

In the print world, most things we call newspapers publish daily, most things we call magazines less often (notwithstanding, say,The Economist's quaint convention of calling itself "this newspaper"). Newspapers also tend to publish unbound on newsprint, while magazines are generally bound and glossy. By this reckoning, tabloids are magazines. Just to muddy the waters, newspapers often include magazines in their Sunday editions, but that seems just a matter of packaging.

Online, though, such distinctions are practically nonexistent. Newspapers, magazines and TV news outlets all update their web sites continually, and any of them may choose to include text, photos, audio and video as they see fit. Perhaps, then, newspapers will eventually just be websites which used to publish in newspaper form.

But this misses the obvious — newspapers focus on news — and the somewhat less obvious — newspapers tend to focus on a particular geographic area. This includes even national newspapers like USA Today and The Guardian. A magazine can focus on anything, or nothing in particular, and need not be bound to any particular place, though some are.

There can also be a difference in emphasis. Newspapers and local stations tend to focus more on reporting, while magazines often focus more on analysis, but his is really a continuum with no sharp dividing line.

Whatever categories we may choose to define, there is overlap and there will probably be more in time. The difference between a newspaper and a news magazine is in the quality of the paper and the frequency of publication, neither of which matters much online. Likewise, the website of a local newspaper and that of a local news station are basically identical in form.

In short, the distinctions between newspaper and magazine, and between them and other outlets, seem to matter less these days