Strategies for the Post-Magazine Publishing World

Cathleen Kaveny at dotCommonweal asks if magazines matter. She asks some good questions in light of the Crisis decision to turn itself over to the internet.

In light of the very interesting announcement about Crisis … here’s a question for the blog. Do magazines matter? Would it matter to you if Commonweal weren’t in print format anymore?

What is the magazine print format, anyway? What is its history? If someone with a knowledge of the history of journalism wants to chime in, feel free, but I’m going to take a stab at it as an outsider looking in.

It seems to me that magazines once mattered for the intentionality they put into reading media: stories, poetry, art, photography, reporting general and specialty news, and non-fiction essays. Some magazines chose broad palettes on which to work, stuff of all kinds, many or all genres. Others might carve out a niche and dwell there: a particular sport, a particular craft or art form, a particular age group, to name a few examples.

The assumption is that people who were passionate about the mission of the particular publication could prepare reading or viewing materials with great care, effort, and research. I suppose the understanding was if you read a story or a news expose in a magazine, it had more gravis, and therefore was more trustworthy.

One, the print form itself, and two, the process that goes into putting together an edited magazine. The pressure to edit on the print form comes from the issue page limit, to some degree; there is a certain degree of selectivity, and demand to be concise, built in to the fact that a magazine issue is only so many pages. That pressure, I assume, is gone from cyberpublication. But there is no inherent reason that a cyberpublication could not be subjected to the same rigorous standards as print.


The other factor for print media is the economics of delivery. With the advent of computers, there is no longer market pressure on a magazine to confine itself to any kind of publishing schedule. The postal system has been totally bypassed. The only boundaries are what the publishers themselves place on the vehicle.

I wonder if any sociologist or pollster has studied the reading and viewing habits of people who go to the internet for news. It would seem the most loyal and large ‘net readerships would be the template an internet publication would design itself.

I suppose if there was some economic merit for an internet publisher to do a daily, thus ensuring a regular stream of visitation, that’s the way online magazines will behave. I’m curious as to what the Crisis people will decide. Are they so conservative that they will confine themselves to a monthly or even a weekly update despite the fact they will no longer meet a print or mail deadline? Will they loosen editorial standards and lower themselves to the “level” of blogging conversations?

As an author, where I write makes a difference to what I write; I think of the print form as more serious, and requiring more careful thought, than the blog form, which I view more as a conversation. I also think having editors is a good thing; they make what I write better. At the same time, I like what’s in print form to be online too, it gets a wider circulation that way.

As Cathleen mentioned above, there’s no inherent reason why the blog form couldn’t be better edited. Commonweal wouldn’t dream of printing “conversations” throughout its magazine. Waste of publishing costs. (Actually they do it already, as do many publications. They’re called the letters to the editor. They’re a popular item, too.) When publishing costs next to nothing, as it does now, the whole game has changed. Amateurs see little point in the editing process when we don’t pay by the word or page.

Maybe the difference, then, is between an “online magazine” (like a regular magazine, but in cyberspace) and online blog ( like a conversation)?

I wonder what the connection to the oral tradition might be. That was mostly how communication used to be handled. Instead of blogs, we had gossip. Instead of YouTube and tv, we had concerts and drama. Instead of online (or printed) articles of non-fiction, we had lectures.

Then we have the era of print media, and it’s probably fading now as the oral tradition faded with the advent of the printing press. Fading, but not disappeared. We still have lectures, concerts, museums, and alas, gossip.

The internet has the potential to substantially overtake the print media. It’s still nice to prop up the pillow, and hold the print media in one’s hand while listening to late night radio, as I do. But if I had a computer the size and weight of a notepad, wirelessly connected, and also feeding a music stream into my speakers, I might move my late-night surfing from the computer to the bedroom. Maybe I’d cut down on my print subscriptions–currently at about five.

If I were a specialty publisher (like Commonweal or a cooking magazine), I’d provide new internet content at least every day. If I had a broad appeal, say in news or in a worldwode readership, I would go the limit on what my staff could provide. Every hour, every ten minutes, every minute, perhaps: something new to get the viewers coming back.

Would it help pump up visits by being predictable (new recipes weekly Tuesdays at 1PM)? Or do people come by several times a day just to be surprised? Without a need to be confined to the economics of a publication size or a mailing schedule, I could churn out good stories whenever my writers and editors could put them out. I might reserve a backlog of material, a few days or a few hours ahead. I’d poll and study the readership to see what people expected and wanted. But I wouldn’t be afraid to experiment or surprise them. Especially if that kept them coming back.

Any thoughts?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Strategies for the Post-Magazine Publishing World

  1. Pingback: Ezines and Web Magaizines » Strategies for the Post-Magazine Publishing World Catholic Sensibility

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