The Intangibly Tangible Quality of Magazines

Businessweek.com is reporting today a number of magazines that did not meet their Rate Base for the first half of 2009. This is the number of issues a magazine says they will be able to sell, and is used to lure advertisers. If you buy a page of Playboy for your upcoming movie, for instance, they will guarantee you a minimum of, say, 50,000 issues sold. By extension, that should mean 50,000 eyes eventually seeing your ad.

Vogue Germany

It isn’t too surprising that magazines faltered in this economy. Given the death rattles everyone hears newspapers making you’d almost have to wonder why this hasn’t come up before. Maybe it’s just so obvious no one is talking about it. But the more I think about what magazines offer, I have to believe they stand a better chance of surviving both the economy and the Internet than newsprint. Here’s my thinking:

Newspapers take a major hit because of Google News or Yahoo! News – the immediate information people need is quickly available, any time they want it. While the information itself (the trusted kind, anyway,) usually comes from these print newspapers, people don’t need to pay for it. Why get a daily subscription to your local daily when everything you need is available on line? Nostalgia? Nostalgia won’t keep anyone’s business afloat. The core product of a newspaper is information – and they just can’t monopolize that like they once could.

Magazines, on the other hand, don’t offer immediacy – they offer something else. They have journalism, but they also offer stories, fashion, photography… things that, somehow, just work better on a printed page. I could call up the pictures in this month’s Vogue and see exactly what I would see in the print edition. There’s just something more pleasing about thumbing through the real thing than going to the site.

It’s an aesthetic difference that on line just cannot match. 10 years from now, the tactile sense of flipping through a magazine on your bed will still outstrip the technological utility of scanning through a magazine on a Kindle.

It’s the same thing as going to a football game instead of staying home and watching it on television. Why wouldn’t you want to stay at home? The snacks are cheaper, the seats are more comfortable, the bathroom is cleaner, the camera crew makes it possible for you to see things you could never see from the stands…

The answer is you go to the real game for the experience of it. Magazines similarly sell an experience, and flipping through pages offers you the chance to, in essence, “be there.” On line digital reproductions, no matter how well done, will always just be reproductions. No doubt, magazines will decline a great deal in popularity.

We aren’t likely to see the boom they had in the mid-nineties when any self-proclaimed publisher could throw together half of an idea, staple it together and start hawking for subscriptions. Music magazines are seeing this in a deadly way, as more and more of them go out of business. Once upon a time, they could simply writing about performers and new albums, and use it as fodder for articles and photo spreads. As music becomes more diverse, and bands do their own interaction with fans through social media, the reason for music rags disappears.

Magazines will surely need to change their strategy if they hope to survive. The basic concept of any successful product is that it gives customers something they need, or think they need, and can’t get elsewhere. The weak magazines won’t see this and will disappear, and the smart ones will evolve and make themselves indispensable again.

You don’t need to be Claire Booth Luce to see that.

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