What Is a Magazine?

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An unexpected highlight of the recent holiday interregnum was a discovery in a random file of old family letters and clippings. It was an immaculate copy of the first issue of Esquire from autumn 1933, probably saved by my wife's grandfather who was an advertising executive with Chicago connections, which is where Esquire was edited, a surprise to me. I had parochially assumed its sensibility was New York-based. What an elegant creation this Esquire was and still is. It was billed as "The Quarterly for Men," with a cover price of $0.50, which must have seemed substantial in the midst of the Depression. 

The list of contributors is extraordinary, including, for nonfiction, Ernest Hemingway (a Cuban letter), Gilbert Seldes, Ring Lardner, Nicholas Murray Butler; for fiction, John Dos Passos, Erskine Caldwell, Dashiell Hammett and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose author's note underscores, "he wrote it himself." There is humor, poetry, cartoons, photography, and sports, with Bobby Jones on golf and Gene Tunney on boxing. There are thirty-six features billed as "in full color." A piece on the declining days of burlesque is as close to racy as the magazine gets, although a number of the cartoons display shapely showgirls in lingerie. "Yeah," says one girl to another reclining on a bed, "And then after he insulted you, what else did he do?"


The graphics and illustrations are in perfect keeping with the overall feel of the pages. I can vouch for how classically cool it looks now, but I'm guessing it was pretty damned impressive then too. In one significant respect, however, Arnold Gingrich, the editor, was wrong in his opening comments. "Esquire," he wrote, "aims to become the common denominator of masculine interests--to be all things to all men. . . . It would have been easier, to be frank, to follow the much fancier handling that characterizes so many of the general magazines that are calculated to captivate the woman reader, but we thought you'd welcome a change from that, so we have consciously tried to avoid all fuss and feathers in dishing up this magazine's contents." Truth is the approach of Esquire could hardly have been tonier. The vast unemployed and blue collar public of that era would have found Esquire an object of fantasy if they found it at all. But it was certainly not pitched to the masses.

I am looking at the January 2010 issue of Esquire, now owned by Hearst. For all the differences in design and layout, the magazine is clearly the descendant of Gingrich's founding vision. He still gets a masthead credit, and appropriately so. With the three Kennedy brothers as photographed by the great portraitist Yousef Karsh on the cover, headlining a piece called "The Meaning of Life," and an advertisement for Louis Vuitton with a casual Sean Connery as the model on the inside cover and facing page, this is very much a latter-day version of the original concept. The first issue was 10" by 14" on thick stock and 117 pages. A subscription card tucked inside offered eight issues for a bargain $2.50. The current issue is 8" by 11" on 132 pages with coated paper. A one-year subscription these days can be had for $7.97, not all that much of a mark-up. There are, according to recent data, 700,000 subscribers and about a dozen branded foreign editions.

The point is that anyone still around who read that inaugural copy seventy-seven years ago would not be baffled by what the magazine has become. Except, of course, that Esquire now has a website, updated daily and carrying all kinds of "fuss and feathers" that do not appear in the magazine, but have a similar purpose: to entertain, advise, and titillate, stopping well short of raunchy. The magazine has experimented with digital gizmos on its cover. But the core of Esquire in print and online remains consistent, even in the free online version. But that may be about to change, and to measure where traditional magazines seem to be headed, I looked at the $2.99 iPhone app for the January issue of GQ, enough of a thematic match to suggest what a reconceived Esquire will be like.
 
The GQ app is touted as an early example of what is widely expected to happen to other magazines this year with the imminent arrival of Apple's tablet and the other larger-screen, multi-media reading devices that are on the verge of release. Instead of being something you surf gratis on the Internet, these digital magazines will be objects to buy direct from the publisher (like buying from a newsstand) with every aspect of the print magazine enhanced by video and audio. To take one example from GQ: the top ten films of 2009 come with the theater previews for all of them. Instead of scrolling content, the experience will be more akin to leafing through the pages, adding irresistible extras and reinstating the notion that the magazine is an object worth paying for.

In a piece earlier this month in The New York Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan speculated on the impact of the impending reinvention (via apps and tablets) of the "20th century commercial art" of magazine-making with "time-honored conventions, protocols and economics," that she contends "produces little value for those who find its elements deracinated on the Web."  The question is whether the essence of Esquire can be maintained in the digital transformation that is in the offing. Or will the beautiful artifact of 1933 and the still lively and interesting version of today finally be overwhelmed by their twenty-first-century competitors as what it means to be a magazine is put to existential test by technology and taste?

Photo credit: Courtesy of Esquire

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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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