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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, editor, and communications consultant whose firm, Right Hand Communications LLC, also produces independent event reports for the energy and utility industry (righthandreports.com). She is the former editor of POWER, among other publications.