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subscriptions in superscript
what do magazines make us?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

I can’t tell whether magazines are a hair’s breadth from extinction, or about to enter a new golden age.

They’re one of the few forms of media that has not been changed in any major way by the dawn of the internet. Sure, you can get online versions of many magazines, but most cut drastically back on content. With newspapers, at least the New York Times and the Washington Post, everything that’s in the paper is also online, and there is additional content as well, like discussions and blogs, produced under the brand. (Believe it or not, the Washington Post is also now a radio station, but that’s neither here nor there.) Music itself hasn’t been changed by the Internet, but music distribution is a whole new ballgame, now that downloading is in the picture. Books, too—we read them the same way as we always did, on paper, but we buy them from Amazon, and it’s not hard to think of fiction (the Washingtonienne girl) and nonfiction (Julie & Julia) resulting directly from blogs. Magazines are a paper medium that has stayed on paper, distributed the same way, looking the same way, reading the same way. You get it through the mail or you buy it at the airport. Period.

Other than that, there are few things you can say about magazines that actually apply to all of them. Even comparing a handful like The Economist, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Shape, Cooking Light, and The New Yorker -- okay, a not-so-random sample, drawn from a stack in my living room -- shows more differences than similarities. They cost a dollar a month, or over a hundred dollars a year. You get six a year, or 12, or 16, or 52. They are dense with text, alive with pictures, intelligent, instructional, a little condescending, a little alarming, preëminent, insightful, insipid, inspired. They are all things to all people.

And that’s one reason why magazines will never die.

Where else can you indulge a particular taste for a particular subject, in detail that would be mind-numbing to an uninterested friend but only whet the appetite of a true aficionado? Magazines select content for you that’s going to interest you, by definition. US Weekly doesn’t make you interested in celebrities. You’re already interested in celebrities, and that’s why you buy US Weekly.

(Also, you probably like short sentences. Like this one. And this. Oh look, Orlando!)

If there were any one way in which the internet truly challenged the existence of magazines, this would probably be it. The indulgence-in-interest aspect. Because people can do that on the internet now -- websites, newsgroups, bulletin boards, all existing just to support groups of people who share an interest. And the ‘net has two advantages over magazines: speed, and community. News, including entertainment news, travels much faster via web than any other means. And writing a letter to the editor of Entertainment Weekly might get something off your chest (“How DARE you not include Time Bandits in your list of Top 51 Rainy Day Movies Best With Cheez Popcorn and a Red Bull?!?!?”) but it won’t get you a response. You won’t be part of anything.

So, want to know the real reason why magazines will never die?

Magazines are also the perfect expression of capitalism.

What’s the intention of most magazines, their reason for existing? If I weren’t so cynical, I’d say they educate. And some of them do. But for most, the main goal of the magazine is to make you a consumer. They make you a more educated consumer, maybe, but the emphasis in that phrase is on the latter half. Premiere wants you to consume movies. The New Yorker wants you to consume, well, New York. (With some crappy abstract fiction and a little nature poetry on the side.) “Beauty” magazines, the Cosmos and Elles of the world, want you to consume cosmetics, gowns, pants, perfume. Vanity Fair? Interestingly enough, just about the same as Cosmo. Seventeen? Prom dresses and lip gloss. Parenting? Strollers, smoke alarms, Gerber.

Unlike other forms of media, magazines don’t just rely on advertising to fund their survival. They are advertising. They integrate product and message in a way that television and movies can never manage, not even when Tom Hanks’ character uses AOL, or Jennifer Aniston’s character works for Ralph Lauren, or Diane Lane’s character lists herself on PerfectMatch.com. They do it flawlessly, so you can't even see the seams.

I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptions to the rule -- what does The Economist want us to consume? The economy? -- but it’s true more often than not. And it isn’t always limited to the chosen subject matter. Last year I honestly had no idea why I wanted to try this whipped-mousse-style foundation. It took me several weeks, and another issue, to realize that I had seen it in Shape, which I had just started subscribing to. As a matter of fact, there’s so much crossover between Shape and Cooking Light that I began to forget which article I’d seen where. As a reader, they figure if you’re interested in one thing, you must be interested in things that are related. Health leads both to exercise and conscious eating. That particular assumption makes some sense.

(But if I were a man subscribing to Cooking Light, I’d frankly be cheesed off at their targeting, because they obviously assume all their subscribers are female.)

Once you’ve identified yourself as a particular type of consumer, they want to grow you into another, related one -- that way, it’s one more subscription. More purchasing. More money.

So, having made this realization, am I going to toss all my Entertainment Weekly issues out the window? Definitely not. Will I refrain from grabbing a copy of Self before I board my next plane? Probably not. Having identified magazines as whole-hearted consumer manufacturing machines, will I step back from consumerism? No. But now at least I know how to answer that initial question.

Magazines are here to stay.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


2007: the year of the empty brand
why trust a word?
by jael mchenry
topic: advertising
published: 1.5.07

the sour taste of ginger
even if you buy it, don't buy it
by jael mchenry
topic: advertising
published: 2.5.01


tracey kelley
4.5.06 @ 12:27a

Unlike other forms of media, magazines don’t just rely on advertising to fund their survival. They are advertising.

My head just rattled at the pure truth of this.

sandra thompson
4.5.06 @ 9:06a

I've subscribed to Time Magazine and the New Yorker for over fifty years. Off and on in the last fifty years I've subscribed to Vanity Fair, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy, The Nation, Scientific American, Interview, National Geographic, Mother Jones and a whole bunch of political rags the names of which I can't even at this moment recall. I've been turned on to books, other magazines, films, music and a plethora of ideas I would never have encountered any other way. I'm a magazine junkie. I even recently purchased the New Yorker on disc from the beginning in 1925 through the middle of 2005. That's seventy five years of my favourite magazine, all in a little box sitting on my bookshelf. I've gone back and read some of my favourite things in it (Franny and Zooey by J. D. Sallinger, for instance) and cannot imagine how much space it would take to have all those issues physically available to me. At least I won't run out of things to do in my dottage, at least until motor function or eyesight gives out.

jonathan maack
4.5.06 @ 12:39p

Quote: 'What does The Economist want us to consume?'

Hmmm, the Economist wants you to consume:
* Globalisation
* Libertarianism (with a tiny streak of idealism)
* Messages from Establishments across the globe

Basically, the Economist is the house organ for the Anglo-Saxon political and geopolitical model. It is technocratic, libertarian and generally sympathizes with capital over labor. It repors stories from around the globe with a bias towards the 'Washington consenus'.

Is it always in tune with the gov't of a given country? No.

Is it always in tune with the wishes of the G8? Not exactly.

But it is much more of a 'critical friend' to the powers-that-be than it is a firebrand.

It also happens to be just about the only place to get a useful digest of major events across the globe in business and politics.

Which brings me to an underlying, but not stated, point in your article - magazines can become natural monopolies for a group/POV.

New Yorker subscribers (per the comment above) are often that way for life.

A magazine that fills a need takes over a huge amount of mindspace - if it hits home for you, it is hard to displace it.

The Atlantic is trying to do a bit of the Economist thing in the US, but it won't ever be the Economist, and so will have a hard time displacing those readers.

Because magazines are a darned efficient way to get thoughtful, edited information that is targeted to: (i) confirm your opinions; (ii) update you on the news of the world that you care about.

Recreating that through web surfing or anything else is really inefficient.

russ carr
4.5.06 @ 12:49p

AH, but there is a digital equivalent. I should know: I prep The Sporting News' version each and every week.

There's a company named Zinio that makes its bread and butter from repackaging magazines from print to digital, selling subscriptions to same, and delivering them through an Internet-based portal. You sign up for 52 weeks of TSN, and each Monday afternoon or whatever, there's an e-mail alerting you that the new issue — every page, every photo, every ad — is ready for you to download. The reader software (which works something like Adobe Acrobat Reader, with a few bells and whistles) lets you flip pages just like you would with the paper edition. The whole file is made interactive; click on a page in the TOC and you jump to that page. Click on an e-mail address or URL in a story or ad and your e-mail client or browser launches accordingly.

I don't know if it's the same with Wintel boxes, but the Zinio Reader software has come prepackaged with all new Apple Macs for quite awhile now.

jael mchenry
4.5.06 @ 1:47p

Russ -- Is this digital subscription thing more or less expensive than getting it via old-fashioned paper? Interesting, I had never heard of this. I wonder how widespread it is.

Jonathan -- Thanks for making that monopoly-POV point explicit. Having that compelling and condensed source of information gets you hooked, and if someone's doing it right, no one else can take away that market share.

On the other end, though, so many of the "beauty/fashion/sex" mags are utterly interchangeable. I'm not sure why a person subscribes to Cosmo over Elle; I'm not quite sure in my case why I went for Shape instead of Self.

russ carr
4.5.06 @ 2:06p

At Zinio.com, you can get a 12-issue digital subscription to Elle for $12, or you can get a print subscription for $14. Playboy is $20 for a year, regardless of delivery method.

What's clear by surfing through Blue Dolphin (the print magazine partner for Zinio) is the dirt cheap cost of subscribing to a magazine if you take advantage of these deals. Just about everything is offered at 50-80% off the cover price. And why? More subscribers justifies a larger press run. A larger press run translates to broader and larger circulation figures. And that justifies ad rate hikes, which is where the magazine makes its money.

nate clinton
4.5.06 @ 2:12p

JM, my man, i couldn't agree less with your assertion that "recreating [a way to get thoughtful, edited information that is targeted to: (i) confirm your opinions; (ii) update you on the news of the world that you care about] through web surfing or anything else is really inefficient."

On the contrary, I find that when I read a magazine, I am usually reading old news. If I find a magazine worth reading, it is only to the extent that it presents a new perspective on the old news. For the purposes of confirming my opinions and updating me on news I care about, the internet is a far more efficient mechanism. For instance, I have 11 separate RSS feeds anchored directly in the web browser window open in front of me all day, each one providing recent news and confirming my opinions (all of which are correct, by the way). And they are free (as in beer).

Frankly, I am unconvinced that magazines will survive in their current form. They are, indeed, an effective catalyst in the capitalist circle of life, but they become less useful as Google and others find cheaper ways to target the same consumers.

jael mchenry
4.5.06 @ 2:31p

Russ -- but you can get the print version for 50-80% off the cover price too. Only chumps pay the cover price.

lisa r
4.5.06 @ 2:46p

I love the print version. I like holding a magazine in my hands and perusing it at my leisure over a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea. They're portable.

I can't take a computer terminal and prop it on the treadmill's book rack. I can't curl up in a comfy chair or relax on my balcony to enjoy the cool breezes. And I can't carry my computer into the kitchen to try a new recipe. (I know, I could print it out, by why should I print them from magazines--I do enough of that with Food Network. And it's a lot easier to remember which magazine a specific recipe is in.)

I love my computer for what it can bring me, but it can't replace what printed material does for me--provides relaxation. Not ever.

nate clinton
4.5.06 @ 3:06p

lisa - i agree with you. technology is inching it's way into the "relaxing media" space, too, with podcasts and things no one has even thought of yet. i think magazines will change over time, i just don't know how.

i am a big fan of the physical book - something i can't imagine a computer replacing. even if i owned a light-weight computerized digital-paper-book-reader-contraption, i still prefer to have the colorful wall of tomes aligned carefully in my living room. and then there's the problem of how to "skim" something without pages.

jonathan maack
4.5.06 @ 3:39p

Nate - I don't know how to set up RSS feeds (though I at least know what they are) and am dubious that the content that they provide would be as well-thought-through as the pieces in the Economist.

I agree that the analysis is key, not so much the news. But when the news is of places that don't even make it to the back pages of most US newspapers, it is truly news to me when I read it in the Economist every week.

My point was that the editorial/curation function of magazines shouldn't be under-rated. They provide efficiency that reading internet real-time sources can't match.

I agree that, eventually, websites could get pretty efficient at this, but there is still the skimming thing, which I think applies to mags as well as books.

albert garcia
4.5.06 @ 4:37p

Great article.


albert garcia
4.5.06 @ 4:38p

I also agree that magazines will be around forever. Libraries have been carrying free magazines for decades. Most, like you said, are available online. But there still seems to be an addiction to purchasing and subscribing to magazines.

I used to wonder how they stayed in business putting all those color pictures and paying all those writers and editors and selling it for next to nothing. Apparently magazines fall into the myth that if companies spend millions on advertising the money somehow comes back to them.

Companies pay networks and magazines millions with the hopes we will all go out and justify their spending by buying everything they advertise. I for one can not remember the last thing I bought because I saw it advertised somewhere. Wait, I lie. I buy a 12 pack of Corona every Christmas after I see the commercial with the palm tree and the lights.

That being said I laugh at advertising and I laugh at magazines and TV, but I watch sports and I buy magazines at the airport, so I guess I am laughing a little at myself.

And when my mom's not looking I sometimes buy the magazine with the little bunny rabbit ears.

Long live Magazines

russ carr
4.5.06 @ 4:43p

And when my mom's not looking I sometimes buy the magazine with the little bunny rabbit ears.


jael mchenry
4.5.06 @ 4:54p

TV Guide, maybe.

nate clinton
4.5.06 @ 6:36p

What is your opinion of the value of online 'zines' such as Slate or Salon (apart from their lack of page-turning and possibly controversial ideologies)? Is the functionality of the magazine otherwise successfully transplanted?

jael mchenry
4.6.06 @ 12:27p

I never manage to remember them. When there's a link to an article in Slate on some other site, I'll follow it and enjoy it -- but they don't keep me coming back. Which makes them more like the magazines I'll pick up in an airport, but would never bother subscribing to.

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