It’s not ad sales that are killing magazines. It’s lazy design and boring content.
A recent trip to the bookstore confirmed something I’ve been scared to admit for a while — I don’t really read the big magazines anymore.
The realization might seem practically prehistoric to the tablet-reading public and those who’ve long ago subscribed to the “print is dead” maxim. But for an editor like me, who grew up reading and then working for local magazines, that particular bit of realization is chilling.
Mind you, it’s not that print is dead. In fact, against all odds, print might actually be blossoming. While some titles have been rendered obsolete by the speed of media today (see Newsweek), high-end titles like Vogue and WSJ are having particularly lucrative stretches. Meanwhile, the indie magazine industry continues to grow, so much so that a small food magazine from Europe like The Gourmand has a strong following across the world in Singapore and a gay local title like TEAM has garnered some interest from international LGBT media.
Further proof? Digital powerhouses like Pitchfork and Net-a-Porter pretty recently launched print publications for their sites — magazines that seem to be doing fairly well and contributing significantly to their respective brands.
And yet, it’s Sept. 18, and I haven’t exactly been excited for any of the magazines in my friendly neighborhood bookstore. What gives?
September is generally regarded as the most important month in magazines. It’s the month when seasons change and the industry shifts from spring/summer to fall/winter. There’s a widely-held notion that people see the month as a time for change, a time for reinvention. September is back-to-school season for countries with four seasons and the idea of throwing out the past season’s wardrobe and starting fresh is incredibly liberating — like New Year’s Eve but without the fireworks. This is what gives the September issue its reputation.
A magazine’s September issue is seen as the barometer of its general health. The number of ad pages, the newsstand sales, the social media buzz for the cover, and the prestige of the cover star are all nitpicked and pored over by industry professionals and readers alike.
“I think the average woman, the average magazine reader understands that the September issue is a big deal,” Glamour magazine editor in chief Cindi Leive told Fashionista.com in 2013. “It’s not like you only worry about this one and don’t worry about August… (But) the fact that people are tweeting at me, ‘Who’s going to be on the cover of your September issue?’ — that level of hunger would not have existed five years ago.”
This year, the big September issue headline was Beyoncé’s refusal to give an interview for American Vogue’s September cover, widely seen as the most important cover in fashion. The New York Times dedicated a full article to her demurral, writing: “Among celebrity profiles, Vogue is very nearly the holy grail. Submitting to a top-tier magazine profile means a peek behind the well-guarded curtain, a soul-baring interview plus a few hours gamely spent on publicist-arranged fun… It is part of the bargain struck between celebrities and the news media, where face time and a few juicy first-person revelations are traded for a starring role. But inside Vogue’s September issue, Beyoncé says not a word.” Apparently, the superstar hadn’t given an interview in two years, as part of a bigger decision to control her public narrative.
It’s a good distraction. Elsewhere, WWD and New York Post reported that Condé Nast, one of publishing’s superpowers, may soon fold some of its titles or convert them to digital publications, citing world-famous titles like Self and Details as being in the most danger. While certain formats remain incredibly lucrative (Vogue has added over 100 pages of advertising back in just four years since the recession), many lifestyle magazines abroad are struggling to keep up their ad page counts.
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But while the pluralism of media ensures that there will no longer be many superpowers, that a company like Condé Nast no longer dictates media trends as directly as it did a decade ago, it seems that all is not lost for print. If anything, it just means that there’s room for publications with a specific point of view and that rarest of things — integrity.
One only has to look at the independent magazine industry to see this principle at work. While a lot of the big titles are struggling, indie magazines as varied as Kinfolk, The Gentlewoman and Lucky Peach continuously grow, build an audience, and generate strong ad support. “With few exceptions, most print covers now do little more than billboard a publication’s contents,” Steven Heller wrote in an article titled “Magazines can compete with the web — with the right design” for Wired. “Other than The New Yorker, which continues to reject coverlines for a single, sometimes acerbic illustration, only indie magazines avoid junking up their fronts. The majority of digital magazine covers are basically homepages with links to features. Now magazines attempt to ‘sell’ all content just in case there might be one or two themes that will attract a buyer.”
Some of these titles are essentially mom-and-pop businesses. But through great content, beautiful design, and a commitment to a specific target market, they’ve seen their titles cut through the multi-media noise and engage with an increasingly loyal — and lucrative — following.
We saw this applied on a grand scale again a few months ago, when Vanity Fair nabbed the coup of all coups and introduced Caitlyn Jenner to the public in an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot and a thorough profile by contributing editor Buzz Bissinger for their July issue. According to Twitter, the cover generated more than 1.5 million tweets. Reports say that it became Vanity Fair’s biggest seller since January 2011. To borrow from another Kardashian’s zeitgeist-defining cover, talk about #breaktheinternet.
That cover proves print’s enduring appeal. While social media buzz is most definitely deafening, and our individual Twitter or Instagram feeds have enough distractions to pull you in many different directions, at the end of the day content — good content — is king. And when print media can get the stars aligned — the zeitgeist issue, the controversial subject, the iconic photo, the definitive story, and a well-designed cover — it can still make sparks fly. After all, at the end of the day, a beautiful image means nothing if it doesn’t say anything. And the medium of the magazine lets you do just that — tell stories.
Local magazines have long proven their capacity to do this. Consider Rogue’s run of iconic covers (Joey Mead as a Philippine flag, Anne Curtis in Paris, Georgina Wilson for 50). Consider Esquire Philippines’ pitch-black Tacloban cover or Eraserheads in London. Remember Preview magazine putting Anne Curtis in Salvacion Lim Higgins or Maricel Soriano for Best Dressed issue. The list goes on.
“Unorthodox cover designs are even more important to the survival of traditional print magazines now that digital platforms and products are pushing them into the margins,” Heller writes. “As long as print magazines are still viable — and if the magazine racks can be believed, they are — (1960s Esquire’s legendary art director George) Lois insists that ‘bold, visually defined Big Idea magazine covers are essential to leap out and grab you by the throat’… The continual barrage of images on our devices means print magazine covers should be ‘economic in form, big in idea, and understood at a glance’ to compete with digital publications.”
The problem? “Most are not.”