Warning: I’m going to ask you to get involved.
Late last year, I met MacFormat’s Chris Phin at the Digital Magazine Awards. We got talking and he mentioned a presentation he’d given to a group of magazine publishing students. Chris sent me his slides and I emailed straight back to suggest he write a blog around them; a couple of weeks later I posted What is a magazine? and since it went up in February 2013 it’s been consistently the most popular post on the Flipping Pages blog.
At first I thought this was just a welcome blip – Chris is a great writer and his post certainly falls under the “Epic Shit” category of successful blog posts – but more than four months later it’s still getting real traffic.
A high percentage of the hits on the post come directly from Google – hundreds of people all over the world are turning to their favourite search engine every day to ask What is a magazine?
“So what is a magazine? Fuck knows – go and make it up”, Chris Phin
It’s obvious why the question gets asked. Over the last decade magazines and magazine publishing have changed beyond recognition. No one really knows what a magazine is – or should be – anymore. What was once a simple noun has become the subject of an existential debate along the lines of “Is there a God?” or can “Can violence ever be justified?”
Why is the question being asked?
When I type what is “quantitative easing” into a search engine, I don’t really know, but I expect to find out. I believe most people that search for an answer to What is a magazine? actually have an idea in their own mind what a magazine is but they’re want alternative definitions. Clever magazine people have figure out they need to challenge the old definitions of their product, mainly because they know the status quo just isn’t sustainable. They want to know their options.
Why does it matter?
Defining the magazine is an impossible task. Chris offered up 19 definitions in his post; Alan Rutter chipped in eight or nine of his own; Jon Bernstein joined in on the Press Gazette; John Biesnecker took the debate digital; White Light Media’s Paul Keers asked a similar question on the Content Marketing Association’s blog. Outside of this flurry of discussions, US magazine commentators Bo Sacks and Samir Husni have been engaged in a friendly spat on the subject for years.
Everyone of these writers has a unique angle on the question; no one answers it definitively and no one ever will. But, just because we’ll never answer a question doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask it.
- Asking What is a magazine? helps us to understand the essence of the format. Magazines are different from other media – faster than books, slower than newspapers; more focused than websites; more deliberate than social media. If we don’t try to understand what makes a magazine different from these other things, how can we continue to make them relevant?
- Asking What is a magazine? helps us understand the changes taking place. Early debate on the issue centred on the platforms – Print vs Digital. The conversation has moved on as digital magazines look less and less like print magazines on screen and take on new dimensions. What makes these magazines and not something else?
Without clearly defined attributes, magazines are just media; the unique benefits of the form will be swallowed up by websites, apps and social media.
What do you think?
With that scary prospect in mind, I want to try give the What is a magazine? discussion it’s own place on the Flipping Pages blog. It’s already a category on the site, but over time I’d like to develop a separate landing page where I can build an archive of informed opinions – and that’s where you come in.
If you’ve been thinking about what a magazine is, please get in touch. I’m looking for thoughtful blog posts from 300 to 1,000 words that will take the debate in directions that I haven’t even considered. What ideas around the magazine format – old and new – are you exploring? Do you know publications that are changing the received wisdom?Can you see a thread that connects the best magazines in print with the best in digital?
There is no right answer to the question, but we might at least get past the print-digital debate and help define enough of the essence of the magazine format to help it survive in pixels and print long into the future.