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It was great having you, magazines. Let’s just say goodbye now

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The announcement came one day in 1992, when I was eight, and was momentous enough in my household that I actually answered the phone with “Tina Brown became editor of the New Yorker!”

This is seared in my mind now as one of the most cringe-worthy things I did in childhood. Yet I’m telling you about it to provide evidence that I grew up surrounded by print magazines and a belief in their importance; so that now, when I talk about my increasingly sad relationship with magazines, you’ll believe that I’m not simply dismissing them out of hand, Millennial-style.

Magazines have been an important part of my reading and regular life, but they aren’t like books, where I actually can’t imagine what both my life and the entire course of human history would look like without them. For all of the debates about publishers and Amazon and so on, I don’t believe that books are going away, even in print form. Magazines, on the other hand, are dying a slow death in a corner.

Like the very last black rhino on the planet finally dying in captivity, perhaps the story will appear years from now — but not that many years — on the front page of the New York Times and/or whatever Buzzfeed-type thing we are reading then (JK, the NYT will still be around, I hope!). Then many people will say, “Magazines! Huh. I haven’t thought about those in, well, oh, since I let my last magazine subscription run out twenty years ago.”

My dentist's office is helping to keep the magazine industry afloat.
My dentist’s office is helping to keep the magazine industry afloat.

Gone, but not forgotten

American Girl, Girls’ Life, Seventeen, Teen, Jump, Teen People, Jane, Cosmo Girl, Glamour, Marie Claire, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, People: As a preteen or teenager, I subscribed to them all, meaning I likely got more mail as a 13-year-old than I do now. Of the 14 magazines listed above, seven still exist, which is actually more than I would have thought (maybe I’m good at picking the winners). As for the others — Google them and up comes the Wikipedia entry, “[Magazine Title] was an American magazine based in New York City…” and you’re stunned by how long it’s been since the magazine was actually published. Yet they’re hammered into my memory. Jump doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, yet its name has stayed lodged in my mind all these years, along with its tagline, “for girls who dare to be real.”

For awhile when I was growing up my mom and I had separate subscriptions to Gourmet even though we were both living in the same house. The idea, I guess, was that this would be a magazine we would need to refer back to for the rest of our lives, so each of us needed our own copies. I am not sure what happened to my copies, but I do know that when Condé Nast announced in 2009 that it was folding Gourmet and keeping Bon Appetit, it was one of the first times I had the actual thought “that company is making a mistake.” Bon Appetit magazine is a mediocre food blog in print form, and as a friend said (she was talking about Martha Stewart Living, but the same notion applies), “I can find short, lame articles about unimportant things online.”

But let’s get to the New Yorker, the one magazine that came up again and again when I asked people which print magazines they still subscribed to. Growing up, my parents bickered over my dad “stealing” it away soon as it arrived in the mail. Now, when my mother visits me, she immediately grabs my copy of the New Yorker and secrets it off somewhere. I also have that memory from when I was eight, of course, but I’m sure many people have at least one example of the New Yorker being important to them, and would be sad if it went away.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 9.38.14 AM

Yet if there’s one magazine that piles up unread to the extent that it is absolutely a cliché at this point, it’s the New Yorker. One of my great satisfactions in life is recycling a stack of old New Yorkers. Another pleasure: scanning the table of contents, seeing that the main feature is a 20,000-word about Russia and realizing that because I will obviously be skipping that, I’m going to be done with this issue in record time. I’m not alone in this. “Just tossed all my mags this weekend!” one colleague told me, exclamation point his.

The joy we get from throwing magazines away seems like a bad sign for their future. On the one hand, there is something nice about reading something you know is finite. Unlike the endless internet that you will never conquer, once you’ve read a magazine you’ve read it, and you get a nice feeling of accomplishment at least until the next issue arrives. On the other hand, it’s a reminder of what a curious position magazines hold — they are so much more disposable than books that you almost wonder why they should be in print form at all, and yet once they go online you tend to lose your incentive to read them, since there’s so much other stuff to read online.

People get magazines in weird ways, too — not via the subscription cards (that relic that everyone hates) but because they donated to NPR, or needed to use up expiring frequent flier miles, or are living in a new apartment and still receive the magazines of the person who used to live there. One person told me she subscribes to the New Yorker because “I can’t think of anything else to use Barnes & Noble gift cards for.” None of these seem like viable business models.

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Many of the reasons I heard for reading print magazines are also … not great. Some people mentioned plane travel, but the FAA no longer bans electronic devices during takeoff. There’s not wanting to look at a screen before bed — another one that may go away as screens get better or people simply become accustomed to blue light entering their eyes at all times.

“I find that with print magazines I feel more compelled to read through every article or at least skim,” a friend told me, “which I think is good in terms of exposure to news that is perhaps dry or unappealing but very important.” I know what she means, but the eat-your-vegetables strategy is a limited recipe for success, and if anybody is going to succeed at it I’d bet on Vox over Time.

Not the talk of the town

When I was younger, one of my favorite things to read in a magazine was the table of contents. A table of contents done well is a wee little art form, getting you excited for what you’re about to read. Magazines seem better shiny, new and still unread than they do once you’re halfway through and they’ve gotten all torn up in your bag. This might be why clickbait works and people rarely finish a long article online. It might be why magazines are often an impulse buy and more people are letting their print subscriptions lapse.

Another colleague told me that her grandparents purchased her a lifetime subscription to National Geographic. While it’s obviously not what the National Geographic publishers meant, it seems likely that National Geographic will die before she does.

I imagine my grandchildren one day looking at a stack of old National Geographics in a closet. “What are these?” they’ll say. At first I’ll think they’re referring to the now-extinct rhinos that they never got a chance to see in real life. Then I will realize they’re talking about the magazines themselves.

“What happened?” they’ll ask. And whether my answer refers to rhinos or magazines, it will be the same. “I’m not sure,” I’ll say. “It kind of just happened.”

Feature photo: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

17 Responses to “It was great having you, magazines. Let’s just say goodbye now”

  1. Andrea Bauer

    Yes, I subscribe to a gardener’s magazine full of “appetizing” pictures of flourishing gardens, nice vegetables, shady trees, even recepies for seasonal fruit and vegetables. Although we have a garden – which is “miles apart” from those pictures – I enjoy the good ideas, they give me a “kick” to try something like that, and it makes me feel good. Besides, and I can speak only for my country Austria, print magazines covering beauty, fashion, living and architecture, leisure (sports, spas, hotels and interesting areas of the own country and abroad) and culture. Of course you book a hotel or a ticket for whatsoever over the internet, but thinking and making plans with all those beautiful pictures is more relaxing with a printed information.

  2. Arno Grobler

    Thank you to the author for this well written and informative article. I am a avid magazine reader, not because I always enjoy the content, but because it serves as a break from technology. Since will live in a time where technology overpowers everything we do, it is nice to flip through some physical pages once in a while and not have to worry about if your battery is fully charged or how much data you are using downloading the images on the page. I don’t think physical magazines will leave the market anytime soon.

  3. Jack Decker

    Our family’s subscription to National Geographic coincided with my birth so I have had a long and intimate relationship with it. In the library, I loved to see the long row of yellow spines. “Here’s my life.” I would tell friends and visitors. All of them were and still are willed to me. Many MANY weekend and summer days I would scan its spines for topics to feast my mind on. I was the go-to student for teachers who wanted students to actually answer their questions. I wouldn’t even raise my hand. After they would commonly futilely ask my classmates a question, they would then turn to me and say, “Jack, what’s the correct answer?” A lot of my ability to answer was from simply reading NG for leisure.

    But that is no more. Since the Internet and Kindle, the library shelves at my now-widowed mother’s home are now filled with artwork and not books. There is no longer the podium with the big dictionary for a quick definition check. And the yellow row of NG is now down in the basement where it life no longer continues to be added to. My mother long ago having cancelled its subscription.

    And just this year, my 81-year-old mother finally stopped getting her Time subscription that was sent to her without her asking for it for years. It being the last magazine she received. Time Magazine today is more a pamphlet than a magazine. My mother and I would hold it up and laugh about how thin it was/is. My mother does all her research online now. WebMD is practically her home online.

    Today, I only read newspapers at fast food restaurants when they freely available where you wait for your order. I only see magazines in doctor offices and commonly see everyone ignoring them as they surf the web on their smartphones or read their Kindles. But this is a good thing. Magazines and newspapers are out of date before they are even printed. They are a medium that is literally too slow. No one rushes out to get a newspaper anymore. They either turn on one of the 24/7 cable TV news networks or call up a news website on their computers or smartphones. Magazines cannot even compete on the indepth angle as the Internet has no word limits nor do you have to turn to Page 36 to continue reading.

    And books are not long for this world either. Once advertisers put an ad page between chapters of ebooks (customized to the reader’s demographics, reading history, and buying habits) and pay authors by how many downloads their book gets, books will be offered free to the public and, just as with news online, reading will go WAY up. Sure, Barnes & Noble will then go the way of Blockbuster. Sure, book publishers will be gone but the death of these gatekeepers is LONG overdue. Only luddite authors and literary agents who cannot establish relationships with advertisers for the authors they represent will weep over their demise.

    Just as cellphones are enabling third-world countries to bypass landline telephones, the Internet is bringIng the world of knowledge to where there are no bookstores, public libraries, or newspaper presses. The world will only benefit from this development. The more we know as a species, the faster we will advance as one. So do not mourn the death of these paper mediums. They were only a temporary evolutionary step who are now being replaced by something better.

  4. george zunic

    subscribed to ‘the nation’ for a year last march. wanted to read some longer news articles in print and help the organization financially. unfortunately, have been receiving numerous magazine subscription offers and solicitations for financial contributions. they must be selling or sharing my name and address. i will not be renewing the subscription.

  5. Steve Heimoff

    Magazines aren’t going anywhere. They may be published someday on a portable, foldable device instead of paper. But don’t bet your house on them dying.

  6. Ok. Nice opinion. Of course, the reality is that there are roughly the same number of magazines in print today in the U.S. as there was 25 years ago (somewhere around 5,500). Brand strength will continue to sustain magazines across multi-platforms, which will include print for at least the next decade or more. But you don’t like them all that much, so instead I guess we should say they are gasping for their last breaths. Cool.

  7. I think a lot has to do with the fact that Magazine as we know it hasn’t really evolved and hasn’t kept up with how we live, consume and how we divvy up our attention, both off and online. The failure is of magazine companies — not of readers — for adapting to the times. A blog-mix in magazine as you describe Laura is a terrible idea. On the other hand, I will be happy to read that 20,000 piece on Russia any day in a magazine. Except, not every day, or every week even.

  8. Nicholas Paredes

    I still grab the occasional magazine. They tend to be mostly design related, or on cooking. And, I do have a giant stack of Saveurs in a corner. Why? I was in mobile rather early, and believe that it is the future of information delivery.

    Access, or something like that is critical. Sure, I tend to search on the web for recipes. But, topics as organizational mechanisms are powerful. Most of the web (or apps) haven’t grasped this yet. Saveur used to have a topic for each issue. One learns a lot about the cultural issues surrounding cooking.

    We’ll get there. Magazines will be less viable. But, there will be many that survive simply because they are useful. Browsing a magazine or a newspaper is efficient. Browsing a website tends to be less scannable. My bet is that blogs continue to eat into the magazine world as ebooks will continue to eat into book sales. There will however be both of these for the foreseeable future.

    The Chicago and Main magazine stand in Evanston, IL is a great example of a place that caters to the less main stream publishers.

  9. When my Mom passed away, we cleaned dozens of boxes of Bon Appetit out of her Bonus Room that represented almost 20 years of the magazine. Each had been thoroughly read when received and then stored to basically never be touched again.

    It wasn’t that content was valuable, just that information was completely unwieldy to use later, especially since there are much better options available today. Magazines are still a powerful way to deliver rich content, but their usefulness beyond the initial consumption is ephemeral.

    Personally, I haven’t received a newspaper or magazine in almost 10 years, not because I find them useless, but more because there are simply more prudent options available.

  10. I haven’t bought a newspaper , even less so a magazine in maybe 10 years so this article feels like it’s way late.
    One interesting thought i had was when looking at the list of mags you used to read as a kid . Their demise might actually help with gender equality. Not familiar with their content but they do sound very girly. Maybe it would be interesting to take a look at some and try to label the content sexist or not.

    • Being gender-specific doesn’t make something automatically sexist, friend. Apparently you can no longer be have any sort of gender identity (e.g. “girly”) and politically correct. That sounds like true sexism to me.

  11. g2-9ed9acc685824c6663c51c5b093476cc

    Oh, please. Did they have this hand-wring-fest when scrolls gave way to bound codices? When the printing press put all those monk copyists out of a job?

    Written information is the thing, not how it’s presented. Especially when the mode of presentation is better, cheaper and more wide-reaching.

    Just stop. It’s embarrassing.