Can Print Magazines Save Themselves?

And what if they don't?

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.”

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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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