On Magazines

I visited my local 24 hour supermarket tonight. On the list was a copy of Good Food magazine for my wife.

Our local Tesco has five 25-foot-long, seven-foot high racks completely full of magazines. Magazines about investing, technology, travel, cooking, cars, motorbikes, sports, fashion, fishing, TV and "women's interest" (whatever that is). Then there are specific subdivisions of each genre along income boundaries, class boundaries and now ethnic boundaries too ("Asian Woman", for example).

We keep hearing that publishing is "in trouble" and, further, that the Apple Tablet is going to "save" publishing.

I really need an answer to this question: what is it that publishing needs to be saved from?

Not one of these laser-targeted magazines interested me. Not one. So I started to think about why not. Here's what I came up with:

  • The writing is boring.
  • The information is probably out of date.
  • They're half-full of adverts.
  • Even half-full of adverts, they're expensive.
  • I'm not interested in most of the articles.

Now, I haven't read every magazine on the market. There may well be magazines which don't feature any of the above. If so, leave me a comment!

It's interesting that the reason I don't buy newspapers doesn't apply: most magazines are not available for free and in full on the internet. So what's so bad about these problems?

The Writing is Boring

I'm being a little provocative here but it stands to reason that with (much) the same people writing about different topics every month, they can't be awesome at it all the time. I'm looking for writing that makes me think deeply and in a new way about topics that I'm interested in or, on the other hand, writing that draws me in to a new subject.

My purpose here isn't to say "blogs good, mags bad", but in the field of what we might call "topical writing", I find the absolutely most compelling writing in blogs today.

There are a few other places that I find compelling writing, and it's usually authors or publications that feature some or all of these attributes:

  • A strong, opinionated voice.
  • An individual voice.
  • No 'house style'.
  • An active, muscular engagement with the topic at hand.

I guess this is goes some way to explaining my morbid fascination with Polly Toynbee's articles in the Guardian. She may wilfully ignore the evidence all around her, she may be jaw-droppingly wrong in so many ways and she may flip-flop between pro-Brown and anti-Brown opinions by the week, but you can't say she isn't a very good writer with a clear, strong voice.

Think about Jeremy Clarkson's column in the Times. You're welcome to love or loathe him, but I doubt if motoring journalism has had such an individualistic voice since LJK Setright joined the typing pool invisible.

Rod Liddle, in the Spectator, is an incorrigible old populist but has a deft touch in opening lines:

"I wonder what Stephen Fry would write on Twitter shortly after he’d been hit very hard on the top of the head with a large spanner?"

...and, indeed, headlines like "Thomas the Tank Engine is merciless and bigoted — that's why kids love it".

Reading things I agree with is absolutely not the point at all. Just. Please. Make. It. Interesting.

The Information Is Out Of Date

This is a problem for print magazines on a monthly cycle. By the time I get that paper in my hands, one of two things has probably happened:

  • The world has changed, and what's printed is now wrong, or
  • I already read about it in five places, read three or four great analyses on blogs and already know what all my friends think about it via Twitter.

They're Half-full of Adverts and Expensive

Well, of course they're expensive: look at all the costs. Aside from the pricey business of actually creating the content, there are all those trees to cut down, mulch, roll, dry, ship, print, chop, glue, package, ship, unpack and rack in the Greenock Tesco.

But what to do? Well, cutting distribution costs is one option. I think my Kindle subscription to The Spectator is great value at $4.99/week (roughly £3.10), even though I could have the print version for £2.50/week. The Kindle version is better than the paper version not because I'm anti-paper but because it doesn't carry advertising.

But back to paper: the advertising layout of most magazines is like the worst kind of intrusive website advertising. The front dozen pages of actual content are interspersed with full-page or double-page ads. Maybe most people don't care but I find it very distracting.

I'm Not Interested

This is the hard part about the mass-market for those of us who came of age in the days of RSS and the iTunes store. With blogs and Twitter, if an information source isn't of value to me, it's gone. There are undoubtedly some great writers in magazines today, but I don't know who they are because their work is bundled up with 100 pages of ads and filler that I have to pay a fiver for.

For a magazine to be a selling proposition, it needs to have a strong signal to noise ratio. This is why I stopped reading MacUser in the late 90s, as it disappeared up its own Photoshop-obsessed backside. Page after page after page of Photoshop how-tos and reviews of £10,000 drum scanners.

What Are Magazines For?

Why do we have magazines? There are undoubtedly some venerable titles - the New Yorker, the Spectator, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek - but so many of the magazines I was confronted with in Tesco seemed like generic templates filled with niche-specific nouns:

  • 25 ways to get more
  • We pick the best
  • Comparisons between products.
  • News (sometimes real, sometimes faux-celeb-news, sometimes fictional TV worlds reported like news).

It strikes me that publishers are acting a bit like some App Store developers right now: unable to make a living from one title, they create many to try and spread the burden of creating. That might actually work for publishing, but it's a terrible model for ongoing product development in software. However, that's another post for another time.

Will the mythical Apple Tablet ride over the hill to save topical publishing? I'm pretty sceptical, but I'm not saying it won't happen.

Can Apple remove the ads? Well, they did it for TV and I can't see Apple letting other people's adverts through their store. [Update: Peter Hosey pointed out the blindingly obvious: that Apple allow adverts in iPhone apps. How did I overlook that, when my own app contains ads? Writing too fast, I guess. Sorry.]

Can Apple decrease the time to market? Probably not. iTunes season passes, at least in the UK, lag some time behind broadcast (the Top Gear pass I bought lagged a full week). It's up to the organisations to either rejig their processes or change their angle to make it OK that 3 weeks have passed since this was news to me.

Can Apple make it interesting again? Strangely, this is where I see the most promise. Steven Covey recently sold the electronic rights to his books directly to Amazon for distribution on the Kindle. It went largely unremarked at the time, but I think that's seismic.

Indulge me for a moment: what if I could buy a 'season pass' to Jeremy Clarkson's column for, let's say, £10/year. Every week, a new Clarkson column pops up, Kindle-style, on my iTablet. At the moment, the Kindle model remains that I buy the magazines whole (or, at least, as whole as the publisher deigns to deliver on the device). Apple has already broken up the one-hit-plus-filler model in music albums. Could they do it for magazines?

Before you comment, please understand that I want magazines to be great. I want to have, as an adult, that sense of anticipation I had as a kid when the day came for the next issue of Spider Man came out.

Let me put it simply: I want to get as excited about a magazine issue as I do when Michael Lopp's feed lights up in my RSS reader.