Monday, February 21, 2011

Mr. Magazine Busts the Numbers of the Latest Magazines-Are-Dying Report

Samir Husni, aka Mr. Magazine (aka Professor Husni at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism) takes apart some lazy reporting about declines in magazine circulation. As usual, Dr. Husni makes good points and demonstrates his knowledge of the breadth of newsstand magazines today.

It's just the latest in the seemingly never-ending debate over the heath of the print magazine industry, in which I work and about which I care a great deal.

On another front in that same war, I have an ongoing debate with a friend over the whole print-vs-digital magazines matter. As I've stated here (and here, extensively) before, magazines that try to do what digital does better are cutting their own throats. Print magazines should offer the in-depth, designed presentation that they do better than online. They should not try to be print versions of web sites with short articles and brain-dead writing that caters to ADD readers.

But beyond that, I do find myself wondering about the need that anti-print people have to kill magazines. Frankly, I don't understand it. I happen to love print and digital, and I have worked in both media. Print mags are hardly standing in the way of digital publications of all kinds, so it's not as if these digital-or-nothing people are in a kill-or-be-killed conflict. Why do they glory over every print magazine that dies, and why do they flame every print magazine that refuses to die?

If they don't like print magazines, then they should just ignore them. After all, I couldn't care less about jai alai, but I don't spend time criticizing it and arguing that everyone who plays it is doomed to irrelevance. Why don't I? Because I genuinely don't care about jai alai. If you love jai alai, don't write me a list of reasons I should love it, too. I just picked that game as one example of the millions of things about which I care not one bit. In short, I think the anti-print people's obsession with the health or ill health of print magazines shows they care about it a great deal. One just can't figure out why.

Have the anti-print people been abused by print magazines in their lifetime, and are they bearing a grudge against this horrible industry? Did they fear that magazines were lurking underneath their childhood beds, waiting to pop out and force them to read long articles on monetary policy or Ray Harryhausen retrospectives? Did they walk down dark alleys on their way to school, fearful of stacks of unread magazines waiting to beat them up and take their lunch money?
I suspect the real reason is related to the fact that magazines remain a challenge to the kool-aid that some of these people have gulped down. They believe that speed and ephemeral trends are the keys to success in the future, and they can't book any contradiction. If print magazines remain a viable source of entertainment and education and information-exchange, then were they really wise to spend hundreds of dollars on that new digital reader? (which they'll replace with a new model in 12-18 months?)

I probably confront more of this kind of anti-print thought than many of you, because I live and work in San Francisco, the heart of the new economy (the good and the bad, the grounded and the fake). But short-sighted, emotion-driven thinking birthed here often drives investment decisions across this country, and it's certainly doing so in the magazine industry. It's also driving publishing decisions. How many magazines do you know that used to run full-page subscription ads for themselves every issue now don't run any? (I can name two off the top of my head.) If the publishers themselves have decided to downgrade their print medium or have given up on it, then why should they expect readers to make a commitment to their print product?

And giving readers a reason to make a commitment to print magazines is what periodicals publishing is about, when it's done successfully. They make a commitment to subscribe to a magazine (which plays into the wacky newsstand numbers Dr. Husni dissects in his commentary cited above), or they make a commitment to look at a magazine each issue on the magazine rack and decide whether they want to purchase it.

It's a greater commitment than deciding to bookmark a web site.
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