Mags Alive

The decline of newspapers makes sense in every way. Are magazines also endangered?

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Going out to walk the dog a few days ago, I grabbed one of those plastic newspaper-delivery sacks that make such a fine canine-cleanup tool, and had a sad thought: If newspapers ever disappear, I'll sure miss these bags.

Here's an even sadder one: What if magazines die, too? What will we miss about them?

It's not an idle question. Inside the media, where the demise of hard-copy newspapers is widely assumed to be inevitable, the shadow has now fallen on magazines.

After a recent round of high-level job cuts at Time Inc., CNBC's Jerry Cobb reported that "the magazine business is in trouble. Time Inc., publisher of People, InStyle, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune, is just the latest to cry uncle. They're in the same vicious cycle newspapers are seeing."

New York Times business columnist David Carr reported that after watching the bloodshed at Time, other magazine industry types "sounded worried that their industry was cracking from the top," and the word "scary" came up more than once.

Last week, New York magazine columnist Kurt Andersen wrote, "We would like to believe that Internet-versus-print is analogous to TV-versus-radio in the'50s: The new doesn't necessarily wipe out the old. But I think paper media today are more like sailing ships around 1860—still dominant but enjoying their last hurrah. I think it's late in the magazine era."

Because Andersen knows magazines—he co-founded Spy, among other things—that last sentence sent a little chill through the media when it popped up on the popular Romenesko Web site. You could almost feel tens of thousands of gainfully employed magazine people trying to translate the word "late" into a precise expiration date, while rushing over to their 401(k)s to check the balance.

It's helpful to remember that most of the recent media-are-dying panic attacks are triggered by exactly this kind of jobcentric thinking. Journalists hang around with other journalists, and inside the echo chamber, bad news tends to metastasize: one spate of firings, and the whole tribe is on Armageddon watch.

Jobs are a valid measure of an industry's health and future prospects. But they are not the only one. Just because Ford Motor is cutting a lot of jobs doesn't mean that cars are on the way out. Somebody's still making a lot of money from cars. And somebody—a lot of somebodies—is still doing very well with magazines.

The decline of newspapers makes sense in every way: businesswise, zeitgeistwise, and just intuitively. Most of the value that newspapers bring to our lives can be translated smoothly to the Web. But when I hear magazines are heading for extinction, it doesn't make the same intuitive click.

For one thing, if we really are entering a brave new world of niche media, it's important to remember that magazines got there long ago. Each magazine is a kind of club that you join, a tribe defined by interests, taste, sensibility, design, and countless other factors. And getting the latest dispatch from that club in your mailbox, something you can hold in your hands, is a more intense, personal experience—more niche-y, if you will—than surfing to it on the same flat screen where all other media live. In an era of specialized media, the hard-copy magazine in some ways out-specializes them all.

The obvious exceptions are the old-line mass magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Reader's Digest, which are aimed at the same gigantic undifferentiated audiences as the network newscasts and feel similarly out of sync with the times.

Some magazines will move wholly to the Web. Others will refashion themselves for the ever-shifting niches. Magazine strategist Peter Kreisky, chairman of the Kreisky Media Consultancy, cites the recent decision by his client TV Guide to move its mass-audience TV listings to the Web, while morphing the magazine into a higher-end product for a much smaller audience of serious television buffs.

And some 20th-century magazines will inevitably fulfill the dark augury and just die.

"I don't think magazines are going to go away," Kreisky says, "but I think there will be fewer of them."