What is a magazine?

04/02/2013 — 9 Comments

MacFormat editor Chris PhinMacFormat’s Christopher Phin wonders “What is a magazine?”. The editor of the UK’s biggest Apple magazine, and launch-editor of the award-winning and gently innovative Tap!, bravely offers some answers, but thinks the magazine is getting increasingly hard to define. Ultimately, he thinks it’s up to you. Tell him #whatisamagazine on Twitter – @ChrisPhin


It’s too easy, when you’re in the business of sending a good, eror-free magazine to the printers every four weeks, to fail to question the fundamentals of what you’re producing. The magazine, as a container and a commercial proposition, has remained essentially unchanged since the eighteenth century, and we’re so familiar with ’a magazine’ that the only creativity we tend to apply to one is in deciding what to pour into the container, rather than thinking about the container itself.

We’re all thinking about digital now, but even if you don’t merely produce a digital replica of your magazine using PDF or the like, it’s likely that most magazines available on Apple Newsstand, Zinio, Google Play and so on are essentially the same things that we’ve been making for nearly three hundred years. Ask an editor even to create a new, digital only magazine, and he or she will probably sit down and draw you up a flatplan that starts with a cover, probably an editor’s welcome, has content split up into sections, puts in some room for display advertising, and so on. Hell, they’ll even think in terms of ’pages’ to put the content on.

But what is a magazine, especially now that we have the option of producing novel digital forms? Since I’m posing the question, I have the luxury of not having to answer, which is fortunate, as for such an apparently simple question with at least one bleeding obvious answer, ‘a magazine’ is becoming increasingly hard to define.

What follows, then, are a few definitions we could use, but they’re intended as discussion points rather than definitive answers; they’re also, of course, not intended to be pontifical or obdurate, and they are occasionally flippant. Here’s a way to think which might help you come up with your own: If we took {thing} away, would what we’re about to make still be a magazine?

Note, by the way, that although I’m a magazine editor, and some of what follows reads like a defence of the medium as it was at the end of the twentieth century, that’s not intended; I’m genuinely as excited as I am terrified in the opportunities in the next five, 10, 100 years. And while a lot of the below sounds like the debate is as simple as ’print versus digital’, that’s only a product of when I’m writing this; the discussion prompted should be much more abstract, and the products created as a result much more fundamentally novel than even that suggests.

So, let’s begin.

A magazine is a point of coalescence for passion
The magazines you read are always by definition about the things you’re passionate about, whether that’s explicit hobbies or objects, or about a lifestyle you have or aspire to. And they’re a reification of and focal point for that passion – something that will persist regardless of a magazine’s medium. (Note, of course, that magazines don’t have the monopoly on this.)

A magazine is something that makes you feel cooler/smarter/more interesting
The implicit or explicit lifestyle a magazine embodies is likely as important a factor in a purchase decision as the actual information it conveys.

A magazine is a treat
Of course, some people subscribe to magazines and journals for business reasons, but for the consumer magazine market, whether a reader subscribes or picks up a copy from a newsstand, they’re probably doing so because they fancy a small, comparatively cheap (and fat-free!) treat. Will this persist? What would happen, say, if everything were free to consumers, deliberately or through endemic piracy?

A magazine is something that informs, inspires and enriches your life
You need to get something from a magazine, whether that’s knowledge or something less tangible. Again, magazines don’t have the monopoly on this, but whether we’re talking about magazines as they exist now or as they might become in the future, this will surely remain true.

A magazine is something made by someone else (someone you trust)
Traditionally, you buy a magazine created by a group of people who either innately have, or in whom you have imbued a sense of authority. But does Flipboard and its ilk, and the tired old canard of à la carte journalism purchased with micropayments, suggest a future in which we make our own magazines by curating a selection of content, perhaps with the implicit guidance of your social network? What would that mean for journalists and readers? (And editors. Sniff.)

A magazine is a curated thing; knowledge, refined
Yes, you can “get all of this on the internet”. (Actually, no you can’t; you can get a review of the new iMac on the internet, you can’t get my review of the new iMac on the internet; it’s part of my job to convince you that my review is worth paying for, probably mixed among other stuff.) But the amount of information available on the internet is one of its great weaknesses as well as a great strength; never mind finding stuff, never mind the cognitive overload required to track down all the good stuff and organise it; part of what you buy a magazine for is trusting that someone’s curated or created the best stuff about the things you care about. Can smarter algorithms obviate this? I suspect not, not without a change in AI that is impossible, practically, for us to envisage in all but the most abstract terms. But might they dramatically shift the balance? And what about filtering information that your social circle unearths? Does that circle jerk actually expose you to new, fresh, challenging information? Does it have to? And so on.

A magazine is a finite thing
Sure, magazines as they are now have some resonances outside their 116 pages or whatever – a website, a Twitter account, links peppered throughout taking you to further reading and so on. But they’re fundamentally finite. They can be finished. They are discrete packages of content. That’s quite calming; “I have completed reading issue 258 of MacFormat”. You have never finished reading, say, the internet, which can induce a sense of ennui. But what if a magazine was (at least potentially) infinite, either containing huge amounts of information, or being constantly updated with new stories, new stats and so on? How would you sell it, if not in discrete, issue-sized blocks? What would your relationship be with it as a reader? What kinds of magazines could this work for – and have we just created a website anyway? And what’s the distinction?

A magazine is offline
So here’s an obvious counterpoint to the above. Magazines today are usually offline, at least conceptually if not always technically. Sure, digital mags usually have at least some URLs you can tap on, and maybe a panel that pulls in a Twitter feed or something, but the bulk of the information is fixed, immutable in each issue. What happens if we change that? Should we? What are the commercial implications?

A magazine is something for a quiet half hour
Perhaps, in the future, people won’t make time for consuming magazine-style content. Maybe it’s all about snatching 10 minutes waiting for the bus, or grazing on stuff while eating a sandwich. Does that mean long-form journalism gets further relegated? Do we merely spoon-feed pap?

A magazine is something for the toilet
Sounds flippant, but isn’t. For men especially, a magazine tends to gravitate to the smallest room in the house, where it will be lovingly read for weeks – sometimes long after a new issue has come on sale. (Ads especially, get looked at much more in this context, my, ahem, bijoux sample-size survey suggests.) How does this change if the basic schtick of a magazine changes, even if it’s as undramatic as replicating the print magazine digitally? If you have to make a conscious effort, say, to launch an app and select an issue – always assuming you have taken your iPad into the toilet with you anyway – then you may be less likely to suck the marrow out of a traditionally-sized magazine, whether deliberately or passively.

A magazine is something you buy… and that might increase in value
We buy magazines, pretty much. What happens if you don’t, but instead get it free? Surely advertising (which has taken a huge hit recently, especially in the ads-dependent US model) can’t be the only alternative? Magazines as part of a package of, say, membership benefits? Partnerships? Besides, the mechanics of nostalgia means some print magazines – magazines as artefacts – actually appreciate in real terms. That would be unlikely to hold true for algorithmically generated or even plain digital replicas of magazines.

A magazine is something that you can stick a DVD on the front of and charge £5·99 for
You can’t covermount stuff with digital magazines… in the same way that you can with print mags, at least. But covermounts are a good way of enticing readers, and coaxing them to pay a generous sum of money for your magazine; there’s a perception that they’re getting lots of value, even if the per-unit cost is pence. But while you could, technically ’covermount’ stuff on, say, digital magazines – ’buy this magazine and get 50% off a download of x’, or ’submit your details to claim your free y’ – it would probably be pointless. Covermounts are designed to attract the attention of the browsing shopper, and to make him or her pick up your magazine rather than your competitors’, but digital magazine buyers probably don’t browse that way – and in any case, the cover previews are likely too small to do a good job of communicating the covermount.

A magazine has a cover
Which brings us to this. People often forget that the main job a cover has to do is to make a browsing customer pick it up and investigate further – ideally purchasing, of course. And since people don’t really browse digital magazines – at least, not in the same way that you might in a newsagent – what’s the point of a cover? A tappable, glorified contents page? Something to act as a cipher for the rest of the issue? Do you even need one? Would readers be too weirded out by that; they have years – decades! centuries! – of being conditioned to expecting common basics like this.

A magazine is regular… and so something you can subscribe to
Magazines usually come out monthly. Why? Is there an equal amount of information to impart every four weeks? Why not make an issue only when there’s really important stuff to talk about? But then how would you possibly convince people to subscribe? ’Hey, give is forty quid and we’ll make some magazines this year? Maybe 15, maybe 2, maybe 7, maybe none’. Of course, you could, alternatively, say ‘Give us a tenner and we’ll give you three magazines’, but there are logistical and financial challenges with that approach too.

A magazine is something you can lose
Your instinct is probably to imagine this applies to physical magazines, and that’s true to an extent; once a print magazine is lost, it’s gone, while you can usually re-download a digital edition to a new iPad, say, that replaced a lost (or, um, more likely, smashed) one. But there’s a bigger point here; ink-on-paper is actually remarkably stable. It will still ’work’ decades hence. Will you still be able to open your digital magazine issues in five, never mind 50 years?

A magazine is a bound stack of pages you can scribble on – and pass on
You may have expected this one earlier. Sure, an integral part of what makes a magazine a magazine probably isn’t the physical medium – you don’t, after all, pay £5·99 merely to own a few dozen sheets of paper – but if you take that away, even if you create a paper-like, PDF replica experience on a tablet, you do change the paradigm. (Wooo! 10,000 characters before we hit ‘paradigm’!) Traditional magazines can be easily shared with friends, family and colleagues too – something that companies often use (legitimately, if often a little sleight-of-hand-ly) to give flattering readership figures in certain contexts. If reader surveys suggest that, on average, every reader who buys a copy of your magazine also passes it on to two others, for example, a straight ABC figure of 20,000 can be parlayed into a figure for advertising eyeballs to 60,000. Or, since we’re talking about eyeballs, I guess 120,000, give or take.

A magazine is something that’s hard – and expensive – to make
Magazines are difficult to make, require huge investment in overheads and staffing costs, and are incredibly hard to sell into distribution channels – in other words, ‘shops’, traditionally. At least this was all true at the end of the last century. And, frankly, producing a magazine as it’s traditionally imagined remains expensive, even if you want to do it digitally. Adobe’s still-high pricing structure for actually publishing magazines, for example, still doesn’t encourage student projects, parish newsletters and disruptive startups to get new magazines out into the world. But still, that will inevitably change, and in any case, if the whole notion of a magazine completely changes anyway, once we’ve thought about the kinds of questions I’ve raised here, we’re probably not going to need DTP-like software.

So what is a magazine? Fuck knows – go and make it up.

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