What is a magazine? Who knows, let’s make it up…

12/06/2013 — 1 Comment

Thinking "What is a magazine?"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.

One response to What is a magazine? Who knows, let’s make it up…

  1. I wrote the following in 2006 about what is a magazine. I stand by what I said way back before the iPad or any other tablet.

    BoSacks: What is a ‘Magazine’ in Today’s World?
    As the digital age takes hold, some common perceptions must change.
    October 2006 By Robert M. Sacks

    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.

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