Will (or Should) Magazines Resist Digitization By Their Very Nature?

by Randy Murray on December 28, 2010

There have been a lot of heated arguments over the past year about the eventual fate of the entire magazine industry in the digital world. And through it all, I’m not sure I’m reading or hearing anything that really addresses the fundamental function of magazines. Many are fighting the high costs of production and plummeting advertising revenue and readership numbers with attempts to encapsulate their print magazines into digital versions, some on the web, others in formats meant for tablet computers like the Apple iPad.

I’ve tried many of the early digital issues of magazines on my iPad. They’re interesting, but they really don’t seem to work as magazines.  I don’t think they’re filling the role of what a magazine is or does. I’m not at all sure there is a digital solution.

Take, for example, the New Yorker. This is a terrific weekly magazine. If you’re not reading it, you’re missing out on some of the best in-depth writing and journalism available. It’s entertaining, funny, and thought provoking. And it shows up, fresh and thoroughly fact checked, every week.

The physical object, the magazine, is a reminder to me, a challenge. Some weeks I only flip through and read the cartoons, skim the articles to see if anything catches my attention. Some weeks I read it cover to cover, and that takes hours. When I’m done it goes in the recycling bin. Sometimes I find that I have a stack of them collected somewhere and with a sense of guilt I recycle them as well. But that physical, finite thing, the magazine, is clearly present. It’s a thing and I encounter it throughout my week until I read and recycle it.

Put that same publication on the iPad or some other, lesser device and it loses all of its urgency. It’s not a thing that must be dealt with. It’s just another stream of information in a sea of other streams. There’s no urgency. It takes up no space and little mindshare. Sure, you might have a little notification reminder on its icon, but I see a lot of those. They’re easy to ignore. And I know that I have the added benefit of having ALL of the New Yorker’s articles from it’s beginning in 1925 available to me whenever I want to read them online. So why read them right now, today?

And what about publications like People or Us or Better Homes and Gardens? These are designed to be primarily advertising vehicles. They’re carefully organized to capture your attention, to titillate, to engage you for just a moment. They’re filled with pictures and short articles, things you can flip through, skim, fill a moment with. You can pick them up or leave them at any point. That sounds pretty much like the web. So why even exist as a magazine?

Newspapers, on the other hand, are better as digital. Online they’re more immediate, more up-to-date, and can let me drill down for more information. In print they’re clumsy, filled with news I can get fresher elsewhere, and increasingly thin on real news, big on ads, and just too damn expensive. I’ve canceled my newspaper subscription and I’m better off with my iPad where I can read the New York Times, USA Today, the BBC, and NPR, all free and at my fingertips. The hard-dollar savings from canceling my paper is financing my iPad purchase. Eliminating my newspaper will virtually pay for my iPad in under three years, which is pretty much my upgrade cycle. And I get a LOT more value out of my iPad then I ever did out of the Columbus Dispatch.

Just as television networks are losing their connection with schedules — of viewers watching a program only when it’s broadcast — magazines are losing their ability to catch a possible reader’s eye. That moment at the grocery checkout or passing by the newsstand are critical to a magazine’s success. Seeing it on your coffee table or at the dentist’s office might capture your interest for long enough for you to pick it up. That stack in the magazine rack in the bathroom will eventually get thumbed through.  While you can make a fully digital copy of a magazine, you lose something when it no longer exists as a separate, physical object.

In this regard, magazines, more than books or music or movies, loses something substantial in the digital world. I think that clever publishers might find that print publishing can still be a successful platform, combined with a different experience for digital publishing. In fact, that’s what I really want. I want my New Yorker fresh every week, printed on paper, delivered in the mail. But I also want my subscription to include access to their archives, video, and a different experience. I think that this hybrid model is the way to go.

There is good news on the New Yorker front. The current editor, David Remnick, seems to have a clear understanding of what he needs to do to keep the New Yorker relevant. Here’s what he has to say:

My idea of the New Yorker, as long as I’m there, is that we’re not going to change who we are, no matter what the delivery systems are, no matter what the means of reading us. We are about reading. We’re about long form journalism, analysis, humor, fiction, poetry, a sense of delight, a sense of seriousness when it’s appropriate.

That makes me feel good about that publication. I wonder if other magazines are as clear about their future direction?


Update: My review of the New Yorker iPad App.

Will (or Should) Magazines Resist Digitization By Their Very Nature? by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Riddle December 28, 2010 at 10:41 am

Dear Randy,

Here we disagree dramatically. I LOVE digital editions. I love them both for the ease of use and carrying and for the implicit back-numbers that I never have to file away, never have to deal with in any substantive form. I think the digital format is, in fact, the more natural format for the ephemeral and even the enduring if the enduring is indeed periodic and subject to being stacked and recycled. Do you have to deal with it, is it urgent? No. But then neither is the newspaper or any book. The urgency of any object is within oneself, not necessarily in the object. So, the urgency of a periodical is in the desire to access that information–print or digital. I find the online New Yorker just fine because I don’t have to page through endless large-format advertisements to find the tiny columns squeezed between the sales brochures for luxuries I can neither afford nor am I interested in. Further, I could care less what the schedule of events in NYC is (most of the time) because I won’t be there to participate.

I have to say I’m surprised by this from you. But then, the surprises are what make a drop-by worthwhile.

Let’s just say we don’t see eye-to-eye on this one. I’m one of those, who while loving the physical of the various media treasure more the access possible when digitized. As you know, with books, you have a functional index/concordance of every book with the ability to search for any word or phrase. So too with the digitization of the magazine.

Great and provocative entry for the blog. Thank you.




Randy Murray December 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm

I have to admit, I was surprised by my developing opinion, too.

I believe I can parse it further. I value the digital version for past issues, archives, and reference, but I value the print for the immediate, the current. If I relied on the digital edition of the New Yorker, which I could read at any time, I’d probably not read it at all.

I did purchase the entire New Yorker archive on DVD a few years back and it’s a glorious research tool. I’d love to have iPad access. But I frequently tuck the latest copy in next to my iPad when I leave the house.

It’s possible, likely even, that I will change my mind on this. But for now, I find myself in the surprisingly ludite position of preferring print, but only for magazines.


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