For the Love of Magazines

The magazine industry is infamous for business model challenges and high rates of failure, so why would anyone consider a new  launch?
It’s got to be love.

I recently had coffee with a new acquaintance who runs a web design firm. When she mentioned she’d like to start a magazine, my first impulse—as a former magazine editor—was to tell her she’s crazy. But I didn’t. She’s not crazy; she’s just passionate about the world of design.

Our brief discussion about the possibility of developing a new magazine had me musing on the drive home about why magazines often spark such passion in those who consume and produce them.

Despite perennial handwringing about the fate of print magazines, the best-run brands continue to thrive, and new ones are born each year. The tally of new print magazine titles for 2017 was 326, according to Mr. Magazine, the trademarked alter ego of industry analyst Samir Husni. That’s a lot of love for, and commitment to, expanding the universe of magazines.

Franziska, who specializes in digital marketing for interior design firms, mentioned that she had briefly worked with a couple of magazines, including Martha Stewart Living, during her time in New York. She specifically said she’d enjoyed the photo shoots. I laughed and told her the magazines I’d worked for didn’t have photo shoot budgets!

Why We Love Magazines

So why is the pull of the printed magazine page so strong for both readers and publishing professionals? A few years ago, Chicago’s City Newsstand published, “Why We Love Magazines Over Books.” Their somewhat tongue-in-cheek Top 10 list includes considerations of cost, time, ratio of photos to text, frequency, weight, currency, and community. I have a few theories of my own .

Magazines Invite Us to Live Vicariously and Richly. Magazines are portals to idealized worlds. Travel and lifestyle brands are the most obvious. They enable us to temporarily immerse ourselves in alternate realities. I’ll likely never own a waterfront cabin, especially as I’m a mountain rather than a water lover, but I still enjoy the aesthetic of Coastal Living; I find the freshness of whitewashed wood and ocean-hued upholstery comforting—even though those design ideas aren’t a strong match for Santa Fe, where I live. Magazines also provide material for developing more effective professional lives and for enriching our free time.

Magazines Put a Positive Spin on Reality. Whether you’re looking at consumer, trade, or association titles, odds are the stories between the covers are mostly positive and aspirational. (Have you ever read an alumni magazine article about how a beautiful, stellar college student became a failure in every aspect of post-graduate life?) You may see a few problem-solution articles, especially in trade books, but editors know that we all want a little hope, encouragement, or inspiration served up with the information we may need.

Magazines Provide Satisfying Coverage. News stories deliver information the fastest—if information is what you’re looking for. Books can provide a broader and deeper perspective on that information—if you have more time and money. But for the optimal package of informative, enjoyable, and timely content, we go to magazines. Like take-out from a gourmet fast food joint, magazines sit conveniently between the stale energy bar in our desk and a three-course meal at a white linen restaurant. A good magazine article, serving up context and voice in addition to facts (“nutrition”), leaves us satisfied, having answered questions, yet giving us something to ruminate upon.

Magazines Package Carefully Curated Content. As internet and social media content sources proliferate, expertly edited magazines—whether they cover politics, fashion, or antique cars—are more valuable than ever. Who hasn’t gotten lost in the digital rabbit hole, chasing affordable landscaping ideas or informed perspective on the latest political firestorm? We value instant access to multiple digital options, but we also relax and embrace the limits of the printed page when we trust a magazine to publish the best material within its purview.

Married to Magazines

There are plenty of reasons to love magazines as a reader, but for those producing them, it’s more like a marriage. This is particularly true for editors, who often become associated with a title and who live and breathe the magazine’s content. And, like the typical marriage, there can be highs and lows.

Though deadlines are unrelenting—making extended vacations virtually impossible for the content crew of a monthly, the most common frequency—the silver lining is that there’s always another issue. Maybe the scoop you were hoping to run on the cover fell through or the compulsory haste to make the printer’s deadline led to an embarrassing typo. At least you have a chance to redeem yourself and the marriage—I mean, magazine—with the next issue, and if the error was substantive, you can run a correction.

Another aspect leading to long-term commitment is that magazine writers, editors, and designers get front-row access to the latest developments in their publication’s sphere of influence. Whether the title covers the hospitality industry, cybersecurity, or travel, magazine insiders (when they’re a good match for the publication) are energized by having first-hand exposure to the latest ideas in their corner of the world.

Passion Feeds Persistence

To succeed as an entrepreneur, it helps to have to have passion for at least some aspect of the endeavor—the industry, the daily work, or the prospect of profits. Passion feeds persistence—the will to see your ideas blossom, even if you have to repeatedly adjust your gardening practices. Passion and persistence are especially necessary for magazine publishing. The origin story of Fast Company provides a good example of this. If you’re smart, lucky, and consistently good, you may end up with a lasting brand. Fast Company, launched in the mid-1990s (I’ve been a subscriber since the first year), is still published, on paper, while many other once-hot business titles in print and online have folded.

Perhaps Franziska will find that producing a magazine is the perfect way to synthesize the array of skills and passions she’s developed to date in her country-hopping career. If she decides to give it a go, I’ll be her loudest cheerleader.

If her magazine remains a dream, she’ll find other novel ways to share her talents. How do I know? She not only has skills and passion, but she’s also shown persistence and flexibility multiple times over her career to date.

In a follow-up exchange, Franziska clarified that she’s more interested in publishing a magazine as an aspect of building her brand than as a stand-alone business. “I think in magazines, if that’s a thing!? Even my architecture thesis was laid out as a magazine,” she explained.

Love and Marriage?

Franziska clearly loves the idea of a magazine, but does she want to be married to the reality of the magazine business? Time will tell. To help her zero in on what makes magazines—of any kind—succeed or fail, tell me: What magazines are you passionate about, and why?

Gail Reitenbach ( is a writer, editor, and communications consultant whose firm, Right Hand Communications LLC, also produces independent event reports for the energy and utility industry ( She is the former editor of POWER, among other publications.

From POWER to Purpose

The following post first appeared on LinkedIn in January 2017 with the title “From POWER to Purpose: Making the Most of a Career Transition.”

I titled my January editorial for POWER—the penultimate one I’d write for the magazine—“The Power Industry’s Moving Pieces in 2017.” Like the power industry, the publishing business is also rearranging its pieces these days, and so I am moving on from a job I held for fourteen years. But before I dive into a new full-time role, I’m taking a short sabbatical to ensure that my next career commitment is as rewarding as the one I made with POWER.

Clearing My Desk

The first thing I did on my first post-POWER employment day was to clear my home office desk, from which I had worked for nearly my entire tenure with the brand. POWER memorabilia didn’t hit the trash—I’m proud of what I did while leading the most respected brand serving the global power generation industry—but it did move to a storage box.

The clean desk was necessary to help me take a clearer look backward and forward.

Here’s my list of the three best things about being POWER’s managing editor, and then editor:

  • I stretched professionally and intellectually. I learned things about the power industry that I would never have learned as a writer or editor for any other media brand.
  • I got to interact with a wide variety of men and women around the world who, in one way or another, are involved in helping to provide electricity—an essential service that developed nations take for granted.
  • I was able to hire and mentor a small but effective team of diverse editors who also happen to be interesting human beings.

And the three best things about no longer leading POWER:

  • I get a break from unrelenting, overlapping deadlines. I actually love deadlines and have always been a multi-tasker—something I attribute in part to having been an organist (using both hands and feet while paying attention to the overall performance and myriad details rewires the brain—see the video link in this NPR story). But deadlines can create a false sense of security. The regularly timed adrenaline rush of closing a print or digital issue and being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor can become a sort of narcotic. Even though I continually learned new things about the power and publishing industries, I never had time to reflect on whether this was what I wanted to do the rest of my career.
  • At least while I’m scoping out the next career trail, I’ll get a chance to forge closer ties to my local community, something that has been challenging as a full-time-plus, home-office-based employee.
  • I have the opportunity to reimagine my future. Though I’ve always been a communicator of some sort—as a professor, communications consultant, writer, editor, and publisher—the focus of my work has ranged widely, from education to energy. I’m grateful that my experiences have enabled me to be a flexible learner, contributor, and leader.

About That Sabbatical

When I was in graduate school earning a PhD, I was preparing for a career as an English professor, a career I hoped might evolve into one in academic administration. That career path has historically included a sabbatical every seven years or so, during which tenured professors take a semester or two off while collecting a percentage of their regular salary. The idea is to recharge and renew one’s professional interests and expertise. The best professors resume their responsibilities with new passion and enhanced effectiveness.

The sabbatical is not intended to be pure vacation. To secure a sabbatical, one needs to submit a plan. That plan often involves travel to one or more special research sites that wouldn’t normally be accessible. The extended, largely unstructured free time enables the academic to conduct and publish original research or to develop a new expertise or course, thereby enhancing the reputations of the individual and the institution.

I had a successful, if short, career as an English professor (that field, too, was undergoing substantial restructuring just as I entered it). I value that experience, but my career since then has been more interesting than I could have imagined.

I have just one regret: I don’t get sabbaticals.

To be clear, the promise of sabbaticals was not why I entered the world of higher education. And I realize that few other careers offer sabbaticals. But I believe it’s a benefit that should be available in many more fields. I’m not alone. See this article from Forbes, for example.

So, I’m granting myself a sabbatical at this transition point, even though it will be shorter than a conventional one.

During my sabbatical, I will be networking with current and new contacts to discern the best career trail to take next. When I do, I’ll commit to it with the same passion and persistence I brought to POWER.

I titled this post “From POWER to Purpose” because my career with POWER was a (lucky) accident. I didn’t apply for the job. My boss at the time walked into my office one day while I was working as an editor for another Platts (now S&P Global Platts) brand and asked if I’d like to be managing editor of POWER. I knew it was a good opportunity, so I said yes. From my first job with the company that became part of Platts, through my tenure as editor of POWER, I had five corporate employers, even though I never left a position. Now it’s time to play a more purposeful role in choosing my next trail.

During my self-authorized sabbatical I’ll also be working on a writing project of my own. It has nothing to do with power, energy, or publishing. That’s exciting, because I’ll get to stretch in a new way for awhile. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll always be engaged with the energy industry, but taking a partial break will help me decide exactly how I want to be involved in the future.

I’m fortunate to live in the West, where I can feed my hunger for nature, hiking, and new mountain vistas. Hikers know that they may take many promising trails in a lifetime, and may return repeatedly to favorite routes, but they can only walk one trail at a time. If they’re lucky, they enjoy a few side paths along the way.

I’ll see you on the trail!

—Gail Reitenbach (follow her on Twitter @GailReit) is a communicator, creator, and hiker who lives in Santa Fe, N.M. She is the former editor of POWER.