Can Print Magazines Save Themselves?

And what if they don't?
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Appearing on Charlie Rose in October to promote a celebratory coffee table book, Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, Graydon Carter, who has been the magazine’s editor for a successful run of 21 years, paid eloquent tribute to print magazines: “There are so many great magazines out there,” he said. “They’re inexpensive, you can buy them anywhere, you can give them to a friend . . . you can recycle them, they don’t need batteries, they don’t need instructions and they’re just wonderful. I love them more than newspapers, and I love them more than books, in a way.”

For those of us—and I am one—who still read multiple magazines that arrive weekly and monthly via the U.S. Postal Service, Carter’s description of the traditional virtues of the print version was a welcome plaudit. But, alas, as everyone with the remotest interest in media developments can attest, the great era of magazines notable for their largesse to staffs, and replete with copious, handsome advertising and strong single-copy newsstand sales, is almost certainly in the past. My personal list of favorites—including (but not limited to) The AtlanticThe New YorkerVanity Fair, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Economist, The Nation, The New York Review of Books and New York—provides an extraordinary array of articles that still reflect the narrative, tenacious, critical writing and editing skills of journalists as gifted as any in the glory days, when magazines were consistent providers of profits to proprietors and (in a few cases of public companies) shareholders.

But Carter, who has a particular flair for maintaining Vanity Fair’s glamorous aura, really did make a point to Rose that is more than just an editor’s accolade to a format and reading experience that may be destined to disappear. The economics are certainly in upheaval, which has happened to magazines before—Look, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and many other publishing stalwarts all succumbed to the challenges of changing habits and technology. But books in print—a format also in the midst of digital transformation, along with an unsettled pricing and marketing model—look likely to endure. Even Nick Bilton, in his New York Times Bits column earlier this month, wrote that, “when I touched that physical book again for the first time in years, it was like the moment you hear a nostalgic song and are instantly lost in it. The feeling of a print book, with its rough paper and thick spine, is an absorbing and pleasurable experience—sometimes more so than reading on a device.” And, radio, which is almost a century old now, is still a mainstay of information, sports, and music. So maybe the print magazine is not altogether doomed.

For now, the prospects for print are generally gloomy. An elegy of sorts was sounded by David Carr in The New York Times in his front-page account of New York’s decision to go bi-weekly beginning in March, a move, he wrote, that “represents the end of an era and underscores the dreary economics of print and its diminishing role in a future that’s already here. The change will beget misty eyes from magazine geeks—myself among them—while other consumers will shrug and drive into the ever-changing web version of New York magazine that shows up in their browser.”

And yes, every one of my print magazines subscriptions has digital versions that are either websites with a flow of eye-catching content that is meant to be read on-line and/or replicas of the magazines downloadable to tablets. The precipitous drop in print advertising for most magazines in recent years is probably irreversible by now, and it is too soon to judge that the focus on revenue from their digital multi-media displays will make up the difference. Carr reported that digital revenue at New York has been growing at a rate of 15 percent year-over-year and will be greater than print revenues in the coming year, while print ads are sharply down again.

So, is there a way to save print magazines?

To begin with, their quality has to be maintained. My favorites have all continued to do superb work in the midst of an ongoing struggle to stay financially viable while their web models gain traction. But most of them—with the exception of The Economist at $160 per year—are very inexpensive. I get regular solicitations from all my subscriptions enticing me to renew at veritable giveaway prices. Vanity Fair, for example, is $24 a year. There are all kinds of discounts touted on the web. Some gift subscriptions can be had for pennies per copy. This made sense for an industry that was dependent on selling advertising—a larger circulation meant higher ad rates—but makes less sense when ads are a shrinking source of revenue.

Meanwhile, my latest informal survey of friends and colleagues shows that in most cases they are now spending hundreds of dollars a month to providers for their access to content through cable, Internet, and mobile devices, plus whatever is added for the digital versions of magazines and newspapers with paywalls. The fact is that digital delivery, which we regard as indispensable, is expensive. Why is it assumed that a certain number of readers won’t pay more to keep getting print publications that they value?

IBT Media, the new owners of Newsweek, say they plan to revive the magazine in print with a 64-page weekly edition in 2014. Jim Impoco, the editor, told interviewers that subscriptions rather than advertising would be the basis of their revenues. “We see it as a premium product, “he said, “a boutique product.” Does a print Newsweek have a chance? The odds are long, but if the print version is good enough, we should be prepared to pay what it costs to get it. Gradually raising the price for printed magazines is hardly a guarantee of a future for them. However, for those of us, including the estimable Graydon Carter devoted to print magazines, it is definitely worth trying.
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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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