Reflecting on Magazines for a New Generation

Earlier this week, I attended the Center for Communication event, “Magazines for a New Generation” at The New School, which featured representatives from Glamour, Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, and more. The panel was a thought-provoking look at how the digital has affected magazine publishing, focusing on how magazines have weathered the migration to small screens. Even though centered on magazines, I came away from the event thinking about what book publishers could learn from the glossies, and I was especially inspired by discussions about the reading experience, reader feedback, and the skill sets necessary for the digital age.

A few takeaways and reflections that might find resonance among book publishers:

Readers provide guideposts to the way ahead. One key to survival is to invite and to process reader feedback, a theme explored at length at this week’s Roundtable, “Direct to Reader: Best Practices for Publishers.” But, often those demands can seem divergent or at cross-purposes. Sharing some observations in developing apps for periodicals, Jared Cocken of The Wonderfactory made the point that, although one’s digital target market might be diverse demographically, it is still possible to find commonalities in what makes a good reading experience. For example, an older demographic might want a reading experience that more closely replicates the print experience, while younger readers, more accustomed to consuming digital content all the time, might seek out a more unique or more personalized relationship with the content.

Yet, despite what might seem diametrically opposed reader experience preferences, Cocken also identified three common preferences, all facilitated by technology, that were generally echoed throughout the panel discussion and inspired some personal thoughts about analogies to the book industry:

  • Aesthetics: Removing the question of whether a digital publication should replicate the aesthetics of its print publication, a publisher could embed fonts to engage in “typographic branding” to stand out and project its identity. This seems to be a growing trend as more publications look to customized digital experiences (both on the web and on devices) to replace earlier digital extensions that pulled content into a generic delivery system.
  • Rich Media: Even though panelists reiterated several times that there were things that could only be done in print, there was general recognition that certain digital-only assets, such as slideshows and videos, were important additions to textual content that enhanced the reader experience but did not detract from the value of textual content. Is it only a matter of time before rich media supplements and enhancements become de rigueur as more and more consumers come to expect them?
  • Curation: In some ways, the glossies’ strength in curation keeps the role of the magazine publisher relevant, even critical, in an environment with such an abundance of information. Is acquisitions the equivalent role for book publishers? Can book publishers remain relevant as readers’ expectations shift and self-publishing continues to amass attention and sales?

Shifts in technology, the business environment, and readers’ expectations require “jacks of all trades.” Several audience members asked about the expertise and skill sets needed to break into the magazine industry, and the general response of the panel emphasized the need for flexibility. With rising expectations that content be complemented by social and new media dimensions, Ben Berentson of Glamour advised being comfortable with all “the tools in your toolkit,” while Teen Vogue Senior Features Editor Leigh Belz advised being “all around handy.” This need to be all things, all at once is reflected in how few organizations have dedicated staff for any of these functions; none of the publications represented on this panel had a dedicated social media person, for example.

But focus on good writing, no matter what. Despite the need for diverse know-how in skills such as image and video editing, social mediums, publishing platforms, and more, all the panelists also agreed on the continued value of “good writing,” with at least one panelist expressing a clear hiring preference for solid writing abilities over strong technical skills. Even though the writing itself might be stylistically different, text still underpins so much content, regardless of platform, and this seems an important lesson even as attention is drawn to the latest in technological “flash.”

Will “good writing” be enough to overcome all the apparent skills gaps that challenge many publishers of content? Probably not, but the tenor of the discussion suggested that a publisher need not, even should not, abandon basic principles—such as good reporting, engaging writing, or authentic voice—while adopting new methods and engaging in a new relationship with readers.

5 thoughts on “Reflecting on Magazines for a New Generation

    1. Ric Day

      Guy, the outlier in this argument is The Economist, whose editors have largely remained anonymous until their death or retirement, yet the publication has remained very successful and respected for decades.

      Many of the best editors I have worked with (as a publisher of magazines and books for 40 years) have neither wanted the limelight nor enjoyed it if pushed into it.

      Ric

      Reply
      1. Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

        There are exceptions to every rule — and it sounds like The Economist is an excellent one (didn’t know their editors were anonymous) — but for an industry that’s become obsessed with “reader engagement” and “direct-to-consumer,” I believe editorial anonymity will need to become an exception.

        Reply
  1. Yvette Chin Post author

    That’s a very good point, Guy – thank you for adding your voice to this. The idea of editorial visibility meshes well with some thoughts brewing in my mind about magazine vs. book “branding”: the differences betw. the very visible marks of a magazine’s brand (editors, columnists) and the book publishing equivalent (authors, imprints, series? dependent on genre/niche?)… and of course, the brand loyalty that comes out of that.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Malkin

      Thanks Yvette for reporting in on this digital gathering centered around magazine content.

      A few questions–did Zinio (my employer) come up? We work with a number of large publishing houses to create replica and enhanced/interactive versions along with branded apps (HBR Reads, Natl Geo Traveler etc) to house your library of content within that reading app (and shop for more of it etc).

      Second, what was the hashtag as I would like to go back to see what was tweeted?

      Lastly, did they talk about selling subs vs single issues, costs to develop, how much is too much interactivity from weightiness/slow download time? Interesting to see how BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK not only works with us but wrapped their last issue with a huge promo for their new app (which does include free content).

      Wish I could have made the actual event but next time.

      Best,

      Andrew
      @armco

      Reply

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