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Whither Print?

By Jen McLeod

The cultural revolution of the ’60s and the birth of the Internet in the ’90s certainly challenged the magazine industry, yet the industry has quietly endured.  In a relatively short span of time, it has survived many tests of perseverance.  But there have been numerous casualties along the way.

Why is it that some magazines survive and some will fall to the wayside? One must consider the possibility of a secret formula for success, although it may not be as exacting as that of a recipe found on the pages of Chatelaine.

In the magazine industry there are two worlds, said Jay Rosen, a writer and professor at New York University’s journalism department.  “The advertising within a commercial magazine is one thing.  The magazine of ideas and trends and politics is another.  They both have histories and their futures are not necessarily the same.” 

The pinnacle of magazine reporting occurred during the tense social climate of the 1960’s – a time of civil unrest.  Today, the same social issues are still prevalent, although they have taken on different forms.            
Anticipating future demands through adaptation is the key ingredient in the formula for success. 

Masthead publisher Doug Bennet said “...if you bore them in print or you bore them online, you’re still going to lose readers, so that’s the cardinal rule.”

By adapting, the print media stays current while meeting the demands of the public. At the same time, the new sources of news have created an immediacy that magazines struggle to compete with.  

INTERNET: FRIEND OR FOE?
It is nearly impossible to avoid acknowledging the role of the Internet when discussing the changing face of the media. 

William Powers, a writer for the Wilson Quarterly, likens it to a modern day Shirley Temple for its many talents that have caught the world by storm.  The internet is a symbol of interaction and immediacy, while magazines in comparison have seemingly become static or passé.

Some are hypothesizing the takeover of print media by all that is web based. 

Former Time editor Jonathan Larsen even goes as far as to claim that the Internet has been an eroding force over other media when it comes to audiences.

However, according to Larsen the most commonly visited news web sites are those of the well-known news organizations.  By this definition, erosion is not the right word.  Instead, the Internet is acting as an aid in the evolution of mass media. 

“Commercial magazines are trying to transfer their authority to online…they still want to charge for their magazines,” said Rosen.  “If your magazine is about influence and ideas and politics like the national magazines then the online world is nothing but good for you because it gives you more space to do things.”

The Internet is a living, growing beast, free of much control and always pushing the limits. As society becomes more web dependant, the Internet is a tool for magazines to stay modern.

“It has done wonders for the magazine industry,” said Charles Oberdorf, a Toronto-based magazine consultant in an interview.  Oberdorf is currently the co-coordinator of Magazine Publishing at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education with experience on the editorial staff of many magazines and as a freelance writer.  “I don’t think it is going to replace it.”    

Oberdorf cites an editor of Wired magazine in an example of online limitations.  “Somebody asked him, ‘Why are you doing a paper magazine when you guys are the gurus of the Internet?” continued Oberdorf.  “He was holding a copy of Wired and said ‘when I can do this with the online newspaper’ – and he rolled up the magazine and he stuck it in his jacket pocket and he said ‘then I’ll think about giving up ink and paper.’”            

While online journalism will not be a replacement for print, it may be a precursor to success by captivating audiences in a new forum.  Magazine web sites can hold a much greater depth of information and detail than those of the print pages. 

“You can do very detailed information online,” said Oberdorf.  “Very complex level information online that you really can’t cover even in a newspaper.”

If anything, the print magazines are becoming a gateway to their respective online versions.  Oberdorf acknowledges the need for any magazine to have at least a minimal web-based existence going forward. 
An online presence also helps magazines become active participants in the lives of their readers. 

The demand for online sites has stemmed from the audience’s desire for greater interaction. In print versions, opportunities for feedback arise only weekly or monthly. Magazine websites allow readers a sense of immediacy – connecting, right now. 

Canadian Living online provides a forum for any discouraged amateur chef whose bunt cake did not rise – although he swears to have followed the recipe.

Masthead’s Bennet said, “If you are a trade magazine delivering news about your particular industry or profession, and historically you’ve published once a month, and people have waited for your issue to come out to catch up on the news, I think you better be online big time or you’re gonna be in trouble big time.” He explained, “because the online media is perfect for delivering the news.” 

It has allowed for movement in what had always been a static “I write, you read” type relationship.
           
DOES SIZE MATTER?
The one thing that many can agree on when it comes to the Internet is its role in fragmenting the audience while at the same time making it much easier for anyone with anything to say to start their own magazine.  It has allowed like-minded people to unify, irrespective of geography or any other constraint. 

And Oberdorf says new technology has broken down the financial barriers to publishing.  “It used to be very expensive to start a magazine,” he said.  “So the fact that I can go in and tweak my type and make it look like a professional typesetter … that’s several hundred bucks per page that I just saved.”  This is an effective way to keep costs down for new magazines.  “It would have taken ten other people with very specialized equipment to do that even 15 years ago,” Oberdorf said.  “So it has lowered the bar to entry.”

Progress will take on one of two forms – smaller magazines for homogeneous factions or all encompassing magazines for the masses.  Magazines of both kinds have seen success and failure states Oberdorf.  Lola, a small Toronto-based magazine for the art scene went under. 

Similarly, Life, the magazine for the average American, found its demise despite numerous attempts at resurrection. 

People will always want, and have always wanted for that matter, one of two things – something to relate to or something to differentiate themselves from. 

The notion that people distinguish themselves because of differences has long prevailed, and leaves society identifying by group.  What makes Canada a multicultural and diverse society is also what fuels fragmentation amongt Canadian readers.

“Every magazine is different, every magazine audience is different,” said Bennet.  “The needs of every magazine readership is different depending on their interests and focus …and their media habits.”
The role of the media, and what its future depends on, is to find that story that the audience can relate to. Kovach and Rosensteil  said in their book The Elements of Journalism, “the press is increasingly fixated on finding the ‘big story’ that will temporarily reassemble the now fragmented mass audience.”

Such stories that have graced the pages of magazines do so because of sex, scandal, and controversy. All are human-interest stories because of a desire to share in some glory or point and gawk at that which could never happen to us. The creation of People magazine in the ’70s was merely a catalyst.

Even news magazines, after a brief affair with cute animals and celebrity gossip, have gone back to hard news coverage with a slight aftertaste of the sex and scandal hungered for in days past.  According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the covers of Newsweek and Time  were “seven times more likely to have the same cover story as People  in 1997 than 1977.” 

THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS AND CHATELAINE
The other option is a magazine that has widespread appeal, one that can target a large readership. 
The creation of People magazine in the ’70s heavily influenced a paradigm shift toward the ongoing pursuit of what Oberdorf refers to as the Superbowl of magazines.  “I suspect somewhere out there, there is a formula for the Superbowl of magazines,” he said.  “For a magazine that again reaches a true mass audience.” 

To do so successfully, this magazine would need to capture enough attention proportional to the thousands of fans crammed into the football stadium and the millions watching on television, foster such anticipation of every new issue, and of course have the entertainment of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. 

“Only the Superbowl can deliver the type of audience that some magazines could,” he said.  Right now, according to Oberdorf, the women’s magazines are closest.  “They’re as close as anything gets these days,” he said.  “The Chatelaines and the Canadian Livings:  There’s probably nothing that delivers to as large and coherent an audience as those.”

CONNECTING AUDIENCE AND ADVERTISERS
What has haunted the magazine industry for the last 40 years is the quest for a consolidated readership while accommodating various advertising strategies and marketing schemes. 

According to Oberdorf, the way to meet such demands is determined by the target audience. “The best formula for a new magazine is to find a readership constituency that advertisers aren’t having any luck reaching in any other way,” he said. 

“And if you can get them to read your magazine, if you can deliver a coherent, desirable audience for a definable community of advertisers, you greatly increase your chances as a business success.”  Many researchers agree that for more than 80 years now, magazine revenue has been fueled by advertising.  As such, a magazine’s interests are heavily interdependent upon the interests of the advertisers. 

But the key to success is finding that untapped market – and to show advertisers what they are missing out on.  The most predominant example in Canadian society is the lack of magazines for people over 50 according to Oberdorf. 

Marketers are still targeting a readership between ages 18 and 35.  But according to MediaMark Research, over the past 26 years, the number and percentage of magazine readers in that age bracket has been steadily declining in all areas of interest. 

“Actually the people with lots of disposable income are people over 50,” said Oberdorf with a chuckle.  “They have lots of money, and increasingly lots of time and there are no magazines doing a very good job of reaching them at the moment.” 

Once again, the idea is adapting to reflect the changes within society.  Success for a magazine comes when it is a representation of the readership.

Some people predicted that the Internet would be the death of print.  There is no sure way to know what the distant future will bring, what th effect of some funky handheld gadget will be. 
But the mourning process has far from begun. 

Magazines are not a symbol of the past, an object of lore that you will tell your grandchildren about.  As society changes, so too will the industry.  And yes, there have been losses along the way and yes, there will be more. 

Finding a cohesive audience and then evolving to always reflect that audience, to meet the demands of the day is what will allow any magazine to thrive. 

But the magazine industry as a whole has an intrinsic value that will not let it die.  It is “a colour, a medium that newspapers can’t give,” said Oberdorf passionately about the future of the business.  “A month on the coffee table, or the magazine stack that newspapers can’t give.  And you’re giving them repeat hits of the same pairs of eyes which television can’t give.”             

The magazine industry has peaked and valleyed, ebbed and flowed, and always
survived.  The content, and most definitely the look, has changed but it has persistently recovered.

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