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

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.

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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