Hurray for Digital Magazines!

By Martha Nichols 

Goodbye, Print Newsweek—and Good Riddance

 


Thanks to Forbes, we now have a definition of “magazine.” Editor and author that I am, I’ve been worried for decades, but here’s Jeff Bercovici in Forbes last week, weighing in on the announcement that Newsweek would no longer produce a print edition:Newsweek Heaven is Real Cover

Newsweek, one of the most iconic and celebrated magazines there is, will very soon not be a magazine at all. As of the end of 2012, it will be website, and a mobile app, and a conferences business, but it won’t be a collection of articles printed on paper.

According to this reasoning, a magazine has to be printed on paper. Never mind that it relegates Slate, Salon, Talking Writing, and hundreds of other online-only literary magazines to the shady category of “website” and “mobile app.” Forget that every slick magazine on a newsstand now has a digital edition.

The change at Newsweek isn’t shocking to anyone in the industry. Still, the Forbes piece and others resurrected hand-wringing about the death of print magazines, especially newsweeklies. As the Week puts it, the shift to an all-digital Newsweek marks “what feels to many media pros like the latest step toward print's inexorable death.”

Yes—and so what? Reincarnation online is an act of mercy for Newsweek’s foundering print edition. While I love glossy layouts, reducing the label of “magazine” to print publications struggling to sell ad pages misses the point. What matters is not the demise of print but the potential to make magazines better.

From where I sit at TW, the magazine medium is making a comeback in new and wonderful formats. But before I get on my high horse and gallop away into cyberspace, let’s hear what Tina Brown, editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company, has to say about what’s to come at Newsweek:

Exiting print is an extremely difficult moment for all of us who love the romance of print and the unique weekly camaraderie of those hectic hours before the close on Friday night. But as we head for the 80th anniversary of Newsweek next year we must sustain the journalism that gives the magazine its purpose—and embrace the all-digital future.

Note that she and her coauthor, CEO Baba Shetty, don’t call digital Newsweek (which will become Newsweek Global) a website. “We are transitioning Newsweek,” they write, “not saying goodbye to it.”

Now, to be fair to those who don’t call digital editions or news sites “magazines,” organizations that measure conventional circulation, such as the Audit Bureau of Circulations and the Pew Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, still focus on print editions. Once U.S. News and World Report went all-digital in 2010, for instance, the Pew Project stopped tracking it in its annual report on the news media. Newsweek Muslim Rage Cover

But as with the death of the novel, the death of the magazine is greatly exaggerated. In fact, it’s plain wrong. Magazines have always been hybrid forms driven by particular editorial agendas. There are weeklies and monthlies and quarterlies. They combine opinion and advice pieces with personal essays and standard journalistic features and news. There’s the typical magazine mix, and then there’s every variation, from Family Circle to the New Yorker to Mother Jones to Vogue to the Paris Review.

Consider the transformation of the venerable Atlantic, which Atlantic Media owner David Bradley claims has been profitable for the past three years, largely because of its digital edition (TheAtlantic.com) and affiliated sites like Atlantic Wire. A recent New York Times article about Bradley quotes him as saying:

“In a sense, I was born 50 years too late…. [A]fter I took over The Atlantic [in 1998], I quickly began losing $8 to $10 million a year. It was not a sustainable business, no matter how much I loved being part of it…. It’s become very, very clear to me that digital trumps print, and that pure digital, without any legacy costs, massively trumps print.

He’s not the only one who sees the virtual writing on the wall or acknowledges what digital versions mean for magazines. Online publications expand the form with multimedia graphics, podcasts, and opinion blogs. Kindles, iPads, and other tablet devices mean a new “delivery system,” in Tina Brown’s terms. And whatever you think of comments by readers, online discussion of hot-button magazine articles has led to new attitudes about who gets to control the facts and the official story.

Brown and Shetty admit that axing Newsweek’s print edition will lead to layoffs—and the continuing erosion of journalism jobs is not good news for anyone. But as the ascent of e-books indicates, digital publishing offers fresh opportunities for writers and journalists, too. As Brown told Reuters in a recent interview, "When I returned to print with Newsweek, it did very quickly begin to feel to me (like) an outmoded medium."

Indeed, the real questions hovering over Newsweek’s future are about its identity and integrity as a magazine. Despite her public statements supporting Newsweek’s journalistic mission, Brown has been criticized for sensationalizing recent covers and feature topics. Blogger John McQuaid (also in Forbes) pins down the trouble:

In [the] Tina Brown era, supposedly the dawn of a new attitude, Newsweek has gyrated through a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to goose its traffic by trying on different attitudes like cheap suits.

Newsweek When I Grow Up I'm Going to Weigh 300 lbs Cover Any periodical that publishes for decades will revamp its look on occasion. But a clear voice has to be at its core. That’s the reason-to-be for any magazine, whether it’s profit driven or a labor of love that relies on donations.

When Elizabeth Langosy and I kicked off Talking Writing in 2010, we did so because we believed in creating a new kind of magazine, one that could make use of social media to increase the audience for literary work and journalistic features. There’s never been a print edition of TW, and we’re grateful to the digital technology that’s made it possible for two professional editors to start a magazine without all the upfront costs—including the need to shill for advertising—that launching a print publication entails.

So, like many other longtime magazine folks, I’ll feel a little mushy when I buy the last print edition of Newsweek in December, but I’ll be far from grief stricken. I’m full of questions about digital magazines, yet this new medium thrills me, too, in a way that I don’t remember ever feeling during my career in print publishing.

TW is a nonprofit literary magazine rather than a newsweekly, and we face a very different set of challenges in 2013 than Newsweek Global. But regardless, what makes a magazine a magazine is not just “a collection of articles” or words on paper—it’s the editorial selection, presentation, and intent behind each issue. It’s the strength of the writing and the journalistic oversight.

That’s why we still read magazines—for the voice and the viewpoint (and, okay, for the pretty pictures). That’s why we subscribe and keep coming back, over and over again, whether we’re turning pages or clicking links.

 


Publication Information

 


© Hadley Langosy

Martha Nichols is editor in chief of Talking Writing. She's also a longtime contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books.

"If human beings were perfect, there would be no stories. Most narratives derive their tension from somebody making bad decisions or ending up in a scary place. But how can you overcome something if there’s nothing to overcome?" — "The Devil Made Me Write It"


 

Comments

Interesting how we will loose so much marching forward with technology. Sometimes a magazine has reached it natural end, but the idea that technology or having an online magazine is the future alone is a bit scary. I am a person who has long collected antique print. I have magazines, some of which are long out of business and others which never went out of business, yet. They are in some cases over a hundred years old. When I first started collecting, it was the idea that I could hold a bit of history in my own hand. I felt the same way about books, picking them up new, used and antique on various travel forays even in politically difficult countries.

I like to read a magazine online, but I do not feel the same way about it as I do print. I don't think it is possible to go back and review a magazine online in the same way. You can't just pick it up, you have to know to a degree what you are looking to look at, where you might find it and you cannot with the same effect cluelessly wander. That element of humanness is gone with all digital. The thing is to many that will never matter, because in the future, they will have not had the intimate experience with print that some once had. We will be very far into the future and removed from this quaint emotionalism of which I speak.

Interestingly this morning on the news I heard about the long time pilfering of the National Archives, so many bits of the nation's history have been pinched. They were in most cases poorly cataloged, not properly looked after, and in partial reference one man has stolen over 6500 individual pieces. There was and is a market in apparently Eastern Europe for these artifacts. So the bombing maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are missing, and things like a letter from Mark Twain asking a friend who was visiting Cuba to bring him some cigars back, no matter what the cost.

If these had all be digital, they would have still been in the archive, though not the same as the real piece of paper upon which the history was written, as least a record of it, and now, we would actually know what was lost.

Stolen in glib and dramatic ways, the stuff is non the less gone.

So, maybe digital is really the way of the future and in order to preserve who we are in this time, there will be some data stored somewhere, and equipment still around with which to view it on and we will not be culturally lost.

Uh huh.

Interesting piece.

Martha,
I'm a fan of both Newsweek and Talking Writing, and a strong believer in digital publishing.

I feel a blog coming on ...

As blogger for the graduate program in journalism at Harvard Extension, I will urge my fellow students to get whatever training they can in all things digital. I think that's were the j-jobs will be.

In fact, TW opened my eyes to the fact that online didn't mean just advertising. Real, from the gut, thought-provoking writing could have a healthy life online.

Whatever happened to the term ezine? How do you feel about it?

Cheers,
Abby

P.S. The novel is dead??? No one told me!

I agree, Martha, the brand should stay. Put some bright young whippersnapper in charge of the digital mag and give him or her a free hand. I wasn't reading it anymore. It was my wife's subscription, started years ago as an annual gift from her mother. When her mom passed, Angela kept renewing it. The cover alone was starting to embarrass when I'd take it out of our box at the P.O. I don't think Angela was reading it anymore, either. She prefers This Week (I believe that's what it's called). I rarely read any print news mags. Haven't for some years now.

Martha,
Two entirely different things to say.
First, I believe that all-digital versions of magazines are, in fact, magazines. Talking Writing is a magazine, not a blog site, and I treat it as such. And I'm proud to write for it.
I find that I now subscribe to so many print magazines that they wind up piled up in the mail pile, because I don't have time to read them, but if that magazine has a digital edition, I somehow make time to read what's online.
I'm not sure why that happens, but it could be that since so much of my work happens on the computer, it's simply easier to switch over to the magazines I want to read when I'm taking a break, rather than actually getting up, retrieving the magazine, and committing myself to reading the whole thing in one sitting (which I normally do). Somehow, the digital version makes it easier for me to access the articles I want to read, and to skip anything that doesn't look interesting. And yet, I can't explain why that is so.

Second. I wish that, instead of going to a digital magazine, Tina Brown had simply killed Newsweek altogether. I cancelled my sub about ten months ago, when I just reached a point where I didn't want the trash heap that Newsweek had turned into in my house anymore. No longer were world and national issues being covered: now I was being subjected to garish, screaming headlines about the poppycock theory of the week, or some fantasy piece. (The last straw was the photoshopped picture of Princess Diana, and the headline asking what if she had lived? Seriously? For a news magazine?) Her adding Niall Ferguson to her staff as resident hack didn't help.
I felt grief that a once great newsmagazine had been brought so low. It will be an interesting experiment to see whether Newsweek thrives on the Internet, but regardless of where it's published, I won't be reading it.

Talking Writing, VQR, Mother Jones, The Atlantic? I love their digital editions, and will continue to read them every chance I get.

Matt, the fact that a print request to renew showed up the day the digital announcement was made is hilarious and telling. Of course, if you renewed, you would then be switched to the subscription for Newsweek Global--or so I assume. Would you want a subscript to the digital version, though? That's what I wonder.

And that leads to the provocative question Lorraine raises: Whether Tina Brown and Baba Shetty should have just killed Newsweek, period. In business terms, I'd say you don't kill a brand like that, although Newsweek Global will be hitting the all-digital news market quite late, and will be struggling for online advertising with a bunch of speedier rivals.

But I also think that one of the reasons Brown is the "magazine queen" is that she's willing to experiment. Sometimes, those experiments go way south, as with recent print editions of Newsweek. (I agree, awful, and "Heaven Is Real" was a true nadir for a news mag.) The mistake, I think, was that she should have made the all-digital shift as soon as she signed on with the Daily Beast. Hanging on in print for a couple more years was a calculated gamble, but at this point, it really is time to transform slick magazines online--not just to turn their old print form into digital facsimiles.

Excellent autopsy! The very day of the death announcement we received, via snail mail, our "4th and final" notice that our subscription was running out. How's that for a close call!

Sheila, you speak eloquently of what print magazines can mean to us emotionally or in archival terms. In fact, I could argue a counter position when it comes to how we're currently archiving old newspapers and magazines--and how much has been lost by pulping the paper and putting everything on easily degraded michofiche.

So, this is not a simple issue. However, I've never been a fan of the advertorial content in slick print magazines. While it may seem to many that digital editions are constantly descending into the pit to grab eyeballs any way they can, that' s been the practice at the glossies since Madison Avenue invaded the periodical world.

With the advent of tablet computers like iPads, magazine design has started to change--in some good ways. And literary magazines like Carve and Electric Literature offer print editions, too, or special print editions, or pdf versions, and that seems to be one practice that's evolving now, at least for niche mags. At TW, we may also offer special print editions in the future. But if so, we will put together editions that are content-driven, featuring some of the best writing we've published online--not whatever hot-button topic is a passing fancy.

In truth, the big opportunity for Newsweek here to remake itself. Produce a special print edition when there's journalism and insight worth saving. Otherwise, go with a digital edition that gets great journalists reporting quickly and participating in discussions with readers about what it all means. Illuminate the news--illuminate the world. Ironic as this may sound, I think that's what virtual words and pictures and commentary can do.

The problem: eating and reading. Butter on the keypad. Crumbs in the cracks. Coffee! Whatever else you can say about (paper) magazines, they never short-circuited.
The only (paper) magazine I've ever subscribed to for more than the one-month trial period is The New Yorker. Life-long love affair. Couldn't get my weekly helping of Kael any other way. (Amazing to remember how little had to go a long way back when.) We still subscribe & as a result have access to the online edition, which, thanks largely to daily stories by John Cassidy & Amy Davidson & various blog postings, is almost another magazine. A great combination that I hope will last forever.
As you say, it's not an either-or picture.
You also mention a long-standing problem: archival resources. The only medium that survives is print, and it's been under siege for decades. Microfiche?! It's a long, sad story of how libraries and newspaper offices, usually for lack of space, have resorted over the years to quickly antiquated or easily degraded sorts of preservation.

I know, Jeremiah. The New Yorker. Its online edition finally feels like an actual digital magazine—and it is different from the print edition—AND I can't imagine the print edition going away—except maybe it will? Eventually. By then, let's hope tablet technology has gotten to the point that it will feel like the same old New Yorker, except on a screen.

As for eating and drinking, you should see what my keyboard looks like(!) For the moment, I avoid swigging martinis when I'm reading on my computer. But reading on an iPad or Kindle solves most of that problem.

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