Publishing veteran Bo Sacks was wondering “What is a magazine?” back in 2006. Bo wrote on the subject for Publishing Executive magazine long before the iPad hit, but his thoughts on what a magazine can be in the 21st century – the same as it has always been but supercharged – are every bit as relevant today as they were seven years ago. He calls this a perennial question, like is there a deity and what’s for dinner? What that thought firmly in mind, here’s Bo’s column from October 2006.
What is a ‘Magazine’ in Today’s World?
Publishing Executive Magazine, October 2006
Are magazines an endangered species? Before I answer the question, I think we need to dissect exactly what a “magazine” is. We know what it was, but this is the digitally infused 21st century.
Just a few short years ago, you could instantly recognize what a magazine was from 20 feet away. It was generally rectangular, constructed with ink, paper, glue or staples. It was portable and required no power source.
But what is a magazine today? What will it be as we proceed into the digital age of information distribution?
As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire once said, “What is madness? To have erroneous perceptions and to reason correctly from them?” We had best maintain our sanity, avoid madness and adjust our perceptions about what a magazine really is. It is also prudent to recognize what a magazine is about to become.
The first step is to realize that printed magazines will not be going away anytime soon—they are here to stay for a generation or two, at least. So, it’s not whether they will be here at all, but how many of them there will be and where they will be on the information food chain. The answer, sadly to some, is not as high up as they once were, and much lower down than where they are today.
But that does not mean the death of magazines, not by a long shot. It is only the transference of the way we distribute our branded content. And that is what we need to define: What is a magazine now that we are increasingly relying on alternative distribution channels?
Today, a magazine is a movable storehouse of reliable information. Portable info-tainment—the same thing it always has been. But now it can be supercharged. It does not need to be timely or constantly re-edited, but it can be. It doesn’t need to have instant reader input, but that is available as well. That innovative functionality is part of the joy of what a magazine can be in the 21st century.
I identify a magazine as a branded, identifiably and uniquely dated resource of information, preferably with a recognizable editorial voice, that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is the brilliant linear design of the magazine that separates it from a Web site. Although a digital magazine can be three-dimensional with the readers’ pursuit of tangential links and information, it is, by design, linear, finite and user-friendly.
So, we have the probability of parallel info-universes. Dead-tree societies co-existing with Internet-connected e-paper that is instantly updated/revised/refreshed info-tainment in a modular format. Perhaps the content will be a little of this and a little of that, from across many platforms and from various publishing houses.
If this is true, it is possible that we could get too much specialization delivered to the reader. That would mean content and magazine delivery that is not informed and broad-based, but narrow and limited in scope.
How do we fix that? AI. AI stands for artificial intelligence, but I prefer to think of it as an artificial agent. A personal editorial concierge who knows everything about me, the reader, and has the ability of not only getting what I ask for, but what I didn’t know I wanted. That is not to be confused with a search engine, which is, at best, the delivery of associated logic. We need intuitive logic for the personal concierge to be effective.
This will happen. It will be more than just an editorial “friend.” It will pay the bills, buy presents you usually forget about and send them on time. It will make all your appointments with other concierges knowing when you can and cannot be somewhere. It will do many organizational chores including bringing in good, interesting edit, beyond what we have requested.
So, what is a magazine in the current and future business environment? It can no longer be considered just a paginated, edited, mass-produced, manufactured product. Now a magazine must have the vibrancy and freshness of the Internet, yet still contain the ability to grow intellectually after the publication date. It must contain the content requested by the reader and the ability to deliver even more.
Are you thinking along these terms? Do you have a concept in your head, not of what a magazine was, but of what a magazine is going to be? Rest assured, your career depends upon your good judgment and prescience.
Robert ‘Bo’ Sacks has been innovating in the publishing industry since the 1970s when he founded his own weekly newspaper in New York. He went on to become one of the founding fathers of High Times Magazine and has worked as publisher, editor, writer, teacher and consultant. He now runs the Precision Media Group, consulting to media businesses and publishing “Heard on the Web: Media Intelligence”, a daily e-newsletter that delivers media industry news and insight to a diverse, worldwide, publishing community.