Some prescriptions for the magazine industry

John Gushue
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Have you picked up a copy of Newsweek lately? I don’t necessarily mean “bought,” either — I mean picking up an actual copy of the magazine.

If you do, hold on tight: a good wind could blow it away. Newsweek, once a lion in American journalism, has become so thin that it almost feels like a glossy tissue.

Earlier this week, Newsweek relaunched itself, with Tina Brown (once of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, more lately of the online juggernaut Daily Beast) at the helm. Reaction has been mixed; some have applauded a redesign that puts the accent on the visual, while others found themselves bored silly with elements they saw years ago.

Sneered Slate’s Jack Shafer, “This is a meal that a homeless person would walk away from.”

Harsh. Yet, it’s kind of appropriate that the sharpest criticism of Newsweek’s launch came from the web (and from one of the first online magazines, no less). Let me explain why.

I used to have a subscription to Newsweek, and renewed it year after year, largely because it was so cheap, but also because there was enough of it to keep me intrigued, even if I often read it just before I nodded off.

Eventually, though, even that benefit was skimpy. Like countless other subscribers, I had been turning to online sources for the same sorts of things (punditry, entertainment, cartoons, political news and the wonderful pithiness that was the Periscope section at its peak) that made the magazine appealing in the first place.

The thing is, Newsweek stopped competing — not just against online content, but for my time. When you find a magazine dull and predictable, you find yourself ignoring the increasingly fevered “Renew now!” notices that come in the mail. You also find yourself not missing the magazine when the subscription runs out. I’m not even sure how many years it’s been since Newsweek arrived in our mailbox.

Plenty of other magazines still arrive in the mail, though, and our family budget (if such a thing formally existed) would have a decent line item for what we also spend at newsstands and drugstores for single copies.

What keeps me buying them? I love the package of a good magazine: holding it my hands, sometimes over my head as I stretch across the couch, sometimes on the kitchen table as I have breakfast. I love the tactile nature of a well-designed magazine, the way the pages fall together. 

This column is about the digital universe, and you might wonder why I’m still rhapsodic about something as old-school as magazines. Aren’t iPads, after all, going to upend the local newsstand?

Maybe, but not necessarily. I’m actually quite keen on the future of magazines, or at least the digital future. While I’d like to see what the reimagined Newsweek feels like in my hands, I know I’ll want more than what the website offers.  I’m wondering, really, what the digital horizon of Newsweek — among many other publications that are struggling to stay relevant — will present to us.

Whether or not the future involves tablets or on-demand downloads or an iTunes-meets-Chapters system, the future of magazines will have to involve elements of quality, depth, colour, design and deep engagement.

You see, we can get the short stuff — the tweets, the lolcats, the funny videos, the hilarious pictures, the no-she-didn’t! gossip — all over right now. We’re drowning in it.

But the culture really needs, more than ever, the longer read, the meaningful report, the photo essay, the I-never-thought-of-that perspective.

That’s what magazines offer now.

The challenge is to get those things right, and then get them before readers’ eyeballs, even if (and especially if) no actual paper is involved.

Elsewhere this week

Perfect Pitch

Do you have perfect pitch — that is, the ability to identify a note simply by hearing it? I don’t, and I can prove it. I did very poorly with this online tool, in which you hit a simulated keyboard and try to pick the right note. Challenge yourself or the family, with varying degrees of difficulty.

Wine pairings

What type of wine goes well with duck or cheese or lobster? If you have a bottle of chardonnay on the counter, what should you think about serving? This is a (far from exhaustive) chart that tries to answer these questions in both directions.

Urly Bits

“Distracting you with shiny things” is the motto of this site, which serves up something inconsequential but seriously entertaining on a daily basis.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s.


Organizations: Vanity Fair, New Yorker, CBC News

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