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Can the Print Magazine Survive?

Soon after the Kindle craze, some warned of print books’ imminent extinction—but thus far, the codex has shown laudatory tenacity. It seems that, if things continue in their favor, print books are here to stay.

But what of the print magazine? Its content is less permanent, less extensive. Its flimsiness is often coupled with excellence, but who’s to say one must procure excellence in print—especially with so many magazines putting their print features online? Atlantic contributor Peter Osnos noted Tuesday the rather woeful future some envision for print magazines: “…Alas, as everyone with the remotest interest in media developments can attest, the great era of magazines notable for their largesse to staffs, and replete with copious, handsome advertising and strong single-copy newsstand sales, is almost certainly in the past.”

Perhaps magazines can take a cue from print books’ relative success, and mimic their selling points in order to survive this digital trend.  For instance: many print-aficionados refer to the experiential appeal of books. The codex is aesthetically pleasing to the reader. Print fans don’t merely read for the words on the page—they savor the very smell, texture, and sight associated with print books.

Similarly, magazines can meet or even exceed the appeal of online experience through the power of visual and sensory mediums. Magazines have great potential for graphic experience: visual images, graphs, and diagrams help the reader connect more deeply with the text.  While a magazine doesn’t have the interactive powers of the web at its disposal, there are other ways a magazine captivate its readers.

Books give us some ideas: for instance, the simple power of a good cover can hardly be overstated. It’s the first thing we see—the graphic that entices us to take a closer look. Book covers have become progressively more exciting in the past decade. Their use of typography and image are interesting and unique. Magazines can also use this power to greater effect. Too often, it seems, magazines mimic newspapers in their graphic rigidity. But the magazine has potential to become a more flexible and creative medium.

There are two main sorts of books that people buy: flimsy paperbacks bought in airports on a whim, and beautiful hardbacks bought for “keeps.” As one could imagine, the former usually end up at yard sales or secondhand stores—but the latter often morph into a collection. Similarly, people usually buy two sorts of magazines: the cheap, flimsy versions one reads for temporary diversion, and serious-minded publications (like the Economist and New Yorker) that get saved, collected, and even treasured.

How does a print magazine avoid the trash bins and yard sales of readers? It must not only have good, strong, consistent content—it must also have timeless content, superseding mere paltry observations on the fickle political or cultural atmosphere of the day. Also, magazines that serve as curators—of art, food, or culture, for instance—stand the test of time by serving as a reference book to their readers.

A final note: I’m not sure how long magazines can survive while putting their print content online. It seems that, in order to survive as a print and online entity, they must diversify material enough to entice readers to subscribe. While the ethos of the publication must remain consistent, its print content must offer something more—or at least something different.

It is true that, even with good graphics and content, some magazines may fail. They may not prove as hearty as their book cousins. But one hopes that, with some diligence and ingenuity, they will continue to grace our bookshelves and coffee tables.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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