January 26, 2015 Last Updated 12:40 pm

What is a magazine? Media reporters often see the web as the answer to all publishing needs

There is a major difference between a publisher’s magazine brand and its total catalog products, which can include print and digital magazines, websites, book publishing, newsletters, events and the like

The magazine is dead, or so some media reporters seem to think. But these same media reporters don’t have a clue as to what a magazine really is, and why millions of readers still buy and read them every week, every month.

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic, who really should know better, says there is no need for a Netflix-for-magazines because it already exists: the Internet. He was writing, as many others did, after receiving word that Magzter would be launching a all-you-can-read subscription service similar to Next Issue and others.

Atlantic-mag-760(By the way, TNN did not get notice of the new service as TNM is apparently in Magzter’s doghouse after I complained of the company’s spam commenting practices.)

Thompson says “a ‘Netflix for (apps of) magazines’ has the pretty, pat sound of an idea with a commercially successful future, except that magazine apps have a minuscule market and the Internet is already Netflix enough for most news and entertainment consumers.”

Thompson makes the same mistake many media reporters do by equating brands with products. The Atlantic’s 10-time a year print product is a magazine, its website is – need I say it – a website. They are not the same thing, even though they share content and a brand name. The reading habits of its loyal customers are different, as is the product.

Others, such as writers at BusinessInsider and other websites have made similar mistakes when talking about magazines, equating a publisher’s brand with is print or digital magazine product. It is a mistake many established media brands make themselves. For instance, The New York Times generally equates its website with digital, as if there could be no other type of digital media product. As a result, it launched an iPad app in 2010 that mirrors its website, simply reformatting it for tablets. It has never changed its approach, though it has sometimes tweaked the look.

So, what is a magazine? Most definitions are terrible: “a type of thin book with a paper cover that contains stories, essays, pictures, etc., and that is usually published every week or month,” Merriam-Webster states. That it would use the word “book” is a signal that it is inadequate.

For me, a magazine is a collection of stories (articles, essays, etc.) put together by an editor for the reader in one publishing package. It is complete unto itself. While it can have additional material through references to past issues, links and the like, it is meant to be read as a whole – either at one time, or over an extended period.

In this way, it is NOT like a website, which can have the same content, and be edited by the same editor, but has no beginning, middle or end when it comes to its total content. Stories stay on websites indefinitely, and article appearing in January is housed on the same site as the story that first appeared in December.

Editors have a finite amount of real estate that they employ. In print, often the limitation is simply the number of pages allowed by economics. But even digital magazines are finite. No editor of a digital-only magazine would allow their magazine to go on indefinitely, they do not add on pages ad nauseam or else fear losing the interest of their reader.

Another big difference is that while magazines may contain diverse points of view, they have the same editorial vision – if they don’t, readers tend to shy away from them, not knowing what to expect issue to issue.

What about the other point, though: that readers have the web, they don’t need digital magazines? This sounds a lot like those print publishers who tell me their readers prefer print. It may be true… of their print readers, but what about those who want digital? Likewise, it may be true, that almost everyone readers web content today, but are you saying no one is interesting in consuming different forms of publishing? For me, this sort of myopic thinking reminds me too much of my conversations with management at a Chicagoland B2B publisher at the dawn of the Internet era – they said it was a fad, the Internet, and not worth their time.

How are things different with digital magazines?

NewsstandOne can create an app for a magazine brand that is clearly not a magazine. For instance, any magazine may choose to create a mobile news app that mimics in many ways the desktop website, sending news and features to their readers one at a time, for consumption one at a time. These are not “magazine” apps, they are apps from magazine brands. Many magazines launch replica edition apps for smartphones, knowing readers are using their phones for media consumption. Many media reporters point to these as examples of why magazines on digital devices won’t work – and they are right, in that these editions are inappropriate for smartphones, but wrong in thinking they represent the entire universe of mobile publishing from magazine brands.

It has been a meme for many years now that print publishers don’t get digital publishing (and the web, in particular) because print is all they know. But I see many digital publishing people today who don’t seem to get the magazine. The web is all they know – and to them, the web equals digital.

This has been, and remains, my biggest complaint about the so-called digital first advocates. They scoff at editors such as The NYT’s Dean Baquet when he says “I always thought that digital first was a simplistic notion, and I am not even sure quite what it means. It should be stories first.”

Although it may be a minority opinion inside the digital publishing industry, I think Baquet is exactly right. If by digital first you mean the web, then you make off limits a whole universe of publishing options (including print!). Being story first feels like a sounder strategy that tying your fortunes to one medium.

I doubt readers truly are craving a Netflix experience for magazines, however. Many observers question whether readers, who read both print and digital magazines as a leisure time activity, want to consume vast numbers of magazines in the same way they bing view TV shows and films.

But my biggest objection to these subscription services is as a business. Building a Netflix for TV and films is difficult, requiring lots of negotiations with studios and networks. This is the barrier to entry. But with digital newsstands, the barrier to entry for a subscription service is practically nil. Magzter merely needs to send out an email to publishers asking if they want to participate and most publishers are more than happy to join in (such is the fear of being left out of a distribution platform today). These digital newsstands may successfully launch their monthly streaming services, but publishers are unlikely to find them terribly lucrative.

  • Sam 3 years ago

    Great article! This Thompson sounds like a character from Tin Tin :))) – The Atlantic needs better people!

  • Rebecca Rolfes 3 years ago

    In a multi-media world, any editor who doesn’t understand the difference between print and digital–and between either of those and broadcast–does their readers a huge disservice. First comes the story, then comes the medium. Assuming you have all of them at your disposal, and most integrated publishers do, you decide which medium best serves the story. Not the other way around. They have only one similarity–they are each a delivery platform for the story. Their differences enable them to convey this particular story at its best. Not all stories should be in print; not all should be digital. Not all need pictures. Some are interactive and some are passive. It’s the editors job to know the difference. What’s worse than a good story badly told?

  • Greg Krehbiel 3 years ago

    Great article.

    I think a huge part of the problem stems from terminology. We simply shouldn’t call these things “digital magazines.” It’s like calling a motorcycle a two-wheeled car and then telling the Harley guy he “doesn’t get” cars.

    Websites, digital issues and print magazines are three very different things.

    However, I disagree with your “story first” approach in the context of magazines. “Story first” sounds right for a website, but not for a magazine, which is a collection of stories, often with a common theme.

  • Ed Coburn 3 years ago

    Great post. Our view of a magazine — whether print or electronic — is that a periodic, curated, linear, finite experience is the essence of a magazine:

    Periodic — comes out with some regular frequency
    Curated — editorial judgment used to shape, select and order the stories
    Linear — presented in a particular order, navigation from one story to the next
    Finite — you can finish an issue (when was the last time you “finished” ready a website?)