OK, the word is that books and the independent bookstore aren’t dead, but what about magazines? Dozens have closed in the last decade; others are on life support. Even household staples like National Geographic sold out after seeing its circulation decline from 15 million in the early '90s to 3.5 million today. At its peak, Time magazine’s announcement of its person of the year was big news; today people tweet “LOL, as if anyone actually cares what Time thinks.” Because people don’t. Consumer design magazines like the beloved Domino are gone, buried by Pinterest and Houzz.
Or are magazines, like books and bookstores, making a comeback? It appears that new magazines are being launched these days, and ironically, many of them are spinoffs from websites. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Chava Gourarie writes that Print is the “new media.” Let’s ignore the shocking fact that the CJR is grammatically incorrect in the title (media are plural) The fact is, print is still where the money is. That’s why new magazines are being started:
Samir Husni predicted print’s recovery, if that’s indeed what this is. A University of Mississippi professor known online as Mr. Magazine, he rattles off websites turned print magazines, including CNET, Caster, Digester, Allrecipes, WebMD, and Net-a-Porter, three of which launched this year. They are among 204 new print magazines to launch in 2015, by Hosni’s count, which he maintains on his website and updates monthly. Those who abandoned print, lured by the elusive promise of digital, are beginning to repent, says Husni. “Print is the faithful spouse. Ninety-five percent of the money is in print.”
There is a good reason for that; on the Web, ads are usually intrusive and more and more of them are blocked. In a print magazine, they become content. That’s why people will happily pay for an issue of Vogue that has twice as many ad pages as content. If a website tried that, it would be a disaster. Magazines have great art direction; I wrote the article shown above in Azure on zoo design, and am perfectly happy to have a beautiful full-page ad beside it. The ad is not flashing, or covering anything up or demanding that I click. It just looks good.
Husni goes on to make some really good points about how magazines differ from the Web; that they are more like being in a club. “It’s like a membership card you receive once a week, or month.” In fact, when you got National Geographic Magazine, that was in fact a perk of your membership in the National Geographic Society. I used to be president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and started an online version of its magazine, the Acorn; I wanted to kill the print edition because of its printing and mailing cost, but members let me know in short order that they belonged to the ACO to get the magazine.
One of the most interesting examples of the power of print comes out of Australia. The nonprofit Alternative Technology Association has been producing its Renew Magazine since 1980, and it is a typical nerd mag, full of technical detail and the kind of content that appeals to the committed. However to expand the market for sustainable green building they launched Sanctuary, “Australia’s premier magazine dedicated to sustainable house design.” It's like a totally green Dwell Magazine, which “features lavish, full-colour spreads, including floor plans, on sustainable new homes and renovations.” But they are green and they are sustainable without beating anyone over the head. In TreeHugger’s Best of Green back in 2010 I called it “The best green shelter magazine available anywhere.” It still is, and is a beautiful magazine with a mission — to make sustainability sexy. I asked its editor Emily Braham about why they do two lavish magazines in this net era and she wrote back:
Print lends itself well to this deeper exploration and the ability to present a packaged whole with narratives around the central theme of sustainable design. Most of our readers are somewhere in the build cycle – dreaming about it, preparing for it or doing it, so it is highly relevant to them. There is a plethora of information online and people are really happy to find it there, but we feel that magazines offer a deeper experience that people are still seeking. In a recent survey we found that around 80 per cent of Sanctuary readers keep their magazines for reference. We also found that 60 per cent read the advertisements, which tell us that they are also benefiting from the really targeted ads that make sure the magazine can get to print!
Magazines are tactile, tangible, physical, and people read the ads. They look good on the coffee table and say something about their owners. As Gourarie notes in the CJR, print has its limitations in this modern world:
It can’t notify you when a work email arrives, can’t be tweeted mid-sentence, and won’t die without a charger. Even better, it’s finite. It’s also supposed to be dead.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.