Ever since the iPad was announced, there has been no end of talk about how it and other tablets represent the future of magazines.
As it turns out, this is now partly true. Magazines, in the form of apps, are plentiful on the iPad, and if nothing else, they’re certainly a new way to experience a magazine. The 7″-9″ screen is a good size for viewing mixed content and the touch screen makes scrolling through a magazine feel familiar and obvious, yet still novel.
But what is the idea of the magazine in the internet age? And are they still relevant? Or is something about the internet already making them less valuable than they once were?
What The Web Did To Magazines
One of the best things about reading magazines on the web is that it’s so easy to share a great article or idea with many people. This is something we’ve become so accustomed to that I’m sure I’m not alone when, reading a physical magazine, I get frustrated I can’t easily tell others about it. The web is great for this.
But as smartly and accurately pointed out by GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, tablet magazines aren’t living up to that ideal because they, very strangely, aren’t embracing the concepts of the web:
“But the app economy marks — for now at least — a return to the good old days when the walled-garden approach to publishing was the norm, and the Internet was just some pesky chat room for nerds. Wired’s app provides a slick interface to the magazine, but no way of actually sharing it, or of linking it to related content somewhere else — not even to Wired’s own website. It’s like an interactive CD-ROM from the 1990s.”
Publishers are trying to use digital to resurrect the idea of the print magazine by using the walled garden approach through apps. So, the tablet magazine is currently less than ideal because of a very odd happening: its newest digital form is actually less good than the previous one.
That, however, is pretty easily fixed. People could just start adding sharing features. But there’s something else about magazines that may be less simple to improve.
Are Magazines Still Relevant?
But another necessary question is this: What is the magazine? After all, other than its physical dimensions, what unites People, The New Yorker or Tennis? What really seems to unite a magazine into a coherent whole isn’t subject matter. The same magazine could contain a column on politics and a recipe. No, what turns a magazine into a single entity with a name is editorial focus: what the overarching purpose of the magazine is. It’s the idea of a magazine as a single editorial entity that makes it work.
But here’s the problem: the web allows you to collect and gather your own content from many many different sources, putting together your own set of things to read based on your interests and desires and social network. It is the opposite of a magazine. Instead of one entity providing all the coverage on a given topic, the web allows you to cull from multiple sources to put together your own collection of things you’re interested in.
Do we still need the concept of the magazine as a singular thing? Or has the web’s multiple, decentralized approach made that kind of ‘editorial collecting’ less necessary?
Is the Personal Magazine Better?
There are real benefits to being able to gather the very best of information from around the internet: it lets you put together your own ‘magazine’ tailored to you There’s at least an argument to be made that very concept of the magazine is changing because the multiple, networked nature of the web changes our need for one publication to bring us info on a given topic, whether that’s baking or current affairs. And maybe the idea of a ‘tablet magazine’ that simply recreates the idea of a publication that somebody else put together for you isn’t such a great idea anymore.
Now, apps like Paper.li and Flipboard allow you to put together a personalized magazines based on either social feeds or a mix of those and pre-created feeds. And maybe the future of the magazine is one no longer about editorial coherence, but is instead, a thing dedicated to your own personal interests. The magazine as we know it would end; the personalized magazine would be the future.
To be sure, some kind of company needs to exist to pay writers to go and out and research new ideas and write great new stuff. How that might work outside the structure of traditional magazine is… well, that’s something that might either need to be worked out, if it can be at all.
What is clear, however, is that the web may have changed the very idea of what a magazine is – and regardless of how it happens, the industry is going to have to deal with it in one form or another.