Magazines: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Robin-Hooding print, vintage infographics, and what organ music has to do with the iPad.
By Maria Popova
As big proponents of the power of curated interestingness, we have to admit that despite their umbilical cord to the corpse that is the print world, magazines — the best of them, at least — are one of the finest examples of cultural curation. But in order for this editorial-curatorial model to survive and flourish past print, it has to adapt to the platform-blind content ecosystems enabled by technology, while staying rooted in the behavioral and cultural demands of its audience. So today, we’ll try to contextualize all this by looking at the past, present and future of magazine publishing from three different angles, exploring everything from the digitization of print archives, to the emergence of niche, indie titles, to the publishing potential of the iPad.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MODERN MAGAZINES
In the past decade, the magazine industry has has an incredible roller-coaster ride, from the boom of indie publishing to the bust of print’s web-induced slow and steady demise. Michael Bojkowski of the excellent LineFeed has just released Decadism: Magazines 2000—2009 — a brilliant and ambitious effort to distill 5 million minutes of magazine publishing into a 50-minute history.
Bojkowski delves into the most compelling depths of the print world, from what drives innovation (technology is the no-brainer guess, but there’s also a surprising layer of environmental concerns), to what factors make a magazine succeed or fail, to how audience fragmentation Robin-Hooded readership, eroding big-name titles while allowing smaller, nicher, independent ones to flourish. He highlights a handful of landmark publications, including a few of our favorite titles today — GOOD and Wired, we’re looking at you — and dissects the styles of some of the most iconic editors, art directors and designers working in publishing.
Lengthy as it may be, this video retrospective is more than worth a watch. We highly recommend it not only as an insightful look at the magazine industry, but also as a fascinating slice of the cultural anthroplogy in which the industry is rooted.
We have to preface this by saying that digitizing print is insufficient and misguided — trying to appropriate contend designed with one medium in mind for consumption in another, guided by entirely different reading behaviors, is like listening to an organ music concert on your iPod: You still hear the sound and get the main message, but all of its quality, authenticity and allure are lost. Still, it has a certain archival value that we can’t overlook — understanding the heritage of a medium is essential to crafting its future.
In the past couple of years, we’ve seen some of the most culturally significant magazines release digital archives in one form or another. In 2008, LIFE partnered with Google to release one of the world’s largest and richest photographic archives. Last month, Popular Science made 137 years of its archives available online. And every issue of SPIN magazine is available on Google Books.
Fulltable, a site dedicated to “the visual telling of stories, collects vintage magazine covers, ads, maps, photographs, illustrations and other print ephemera, covering everything from fashion to early data visualization. Despite the clumsy interface, the site is brimming with gems — like these John Falter magazine covers depicting small-town life in America, or this fascinating flowchart explaining big unionism, or this gorgeous 1939 map of Los Angeles.
While digitization is obviously not the answer to print’s relationship with web platforms, it’s a potent antidote to one of the web’s biggest plagues: Its ephemeral nature and the burying of excellent older content in this culture of immediacy and compulsive currentness.
It’s no secret the iPad has been profusely drooled on by the magazine industry, with print publishers hailing it as a silver bullet that will save their business and do their laundry in the process. Which it may be, but only if used in a smart way that harnesses its power to offer a more seamless and intuitive curatorial experience, rather than merely its techno-bling potential. Here are a handful of the better-conceived efforts to appropriate the iPad as a keeper of magazines’ fascination.
From Wired, a reader prototype running on Adobe Air, designed for the iPad before there was an iPad, set to launch this summer. We saw the demo live at TED last month, but the video is yet to be released, so we apologize for this poor-man’s version shot at SXSW this month — but you still get the basic idea.
From VIV, an interactive iPad demo — which we think falls a bit too much on the bling-over-editorial side, but is still compelling.
From Time Inc., a tablet concept for Sports Illustrated.
Finally, a concept from designer Jesse Rosten for Sunset Magazine reimagines the magazine industry’s most potent currency and readership gatekeeper: The allure of the magazine cover.
Of course, once these technologies are in place, pricing the content in an accessible way that’s not outrageously, unreasonably, prohibitively expensive is a different story. But however this forced evolution unfolds, one thing is for sure: A tectonic shift in media is upon us.
Published March 29, 2010