The Blog

Watching the Magazine Industry Commit Suicide

In editorial, publishing on Tuesday, 6 October 2009 at 0:04

On the off chance that some of you still have Brijit in your RSS readers:

Two pieces of news have come across over the past few days that have me convinced that the magazine industry is hellbent on its own destruction. On Friday, All Thing D reported that Time Inc.’s planned “Hulu for magazines” joint venture was moving forward. Then this morning, Conde Nast announced it was shuttering Gourmet. Taken together, it’s difficult to come away feeling anything but sad, because it appears that the best minds in the magazine industry haven’t the first clue about what makes magazines special.

Let’s start with “Hulu for magazines,” which has “doomed to fail” written all over it. What the magazine publishers (and most of the reporters that cover them) fail to understand is that the very nature of glossy magazine content is ill-suited for a digital world — and the glossier the magazine, the worse the fit for digital distribution.

I may prefer to watch my movies on the big screen, but throw one on an iPod Touch that I hold close to my face and listen to with a good set of headphones, and the experience is good, or at least good enough. Ditto for tv shows, video clips, etc. Video works just fine on a laptop screen, or the wished-for tablet, or whatever else comes along. Video lends itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution because it’s ALWAYS lent itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution. That’s the nature of video — digital distribution is just the latest iteration. So of course YouTube and Hulu work.

News and other short-form text are a perfect fit for digital, too, which is why we all consume our news online now. The only time I read a print newspaper now is when I’m on vacation (and then only on Sunday). And I’ve bcome more comfortable than I ever thought possible getting my news on a 2-inch Blackberry screen. Why? Because the essential nature of the information is unchanged: print or iPod, it’s the same news. The transition proved a little harder for books: it took a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle to move the needle on digital distribution, but this ship has sailed, too, and there’s no turning back.

What all of these forms of content and consumption have in common is that they are all effectively one-dimensional at their core. You watch video to see it and listen to it — movie screen or 50″ plasma or iPhone, the experience is basically the same. You read news for the words on the page — tablet, laptop, paper, it really doesn’t make much difference. You read books for the story — it’s linear, whether you’re turning the page or scrolling on your Kindle.

Put another way: most content survives and thrives independent of whatever particular container it might be shipped in.

But magazines, especially glossies, are rooted to their form factor in a way that none of this other content is. The magazine form is embedded in its DNA. A fundamental part of what makes Vogue Vogue is the thud of the September issue, the page after page of beautiful women wearing impossible clothes. The New York Times Magazine is not just about the words or the pictures — it’s about the feel of the crossword on your lap, your coffee and bagel on the side-table next to you. Even The New Yorker, which is so text-heavy that it actually translates quite well online despite the length of a typical feature, loses something significant without the interspersed cartoons and the artful cover. Unlike all these other forms of content, magazines are as much about the container as about what goes in them. Magazines are the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes them so great, so unique, and so endangered.

Conde Nast announced today that it’s killing Gourmet after a 68-year run, most of them good. Now, I don’t clip the recipes — I long ago made the move to epicurious. And I don’t really read the articles either — only time to skim, I’m afraid. But throw in the cover art and the pictures and the ads, and editor Ruth Reichl’s uncanny ability to pull it all together, and there’s something about Gourmet magazine that is, well, beautiful. It will be missed.

I understand the need to rationalize costs. I’m sure the Conde Nast folks, and their friends at McKinsey, had plenty of good reasons to kill Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, and Cookie, just as they killed Men’s Vogue and Portfolio before them. I’m not arguing against making hard decisions. But having Gourmet live on via tv and a book imprint? I wish they’d call it something else, because it surely won’t be Gourmet.

Nearly 70 years as an icon of the food world, at a time when more people are paying more attention to food than ever before, and the world’s premier magazine company can’t figure out how to make Gourmet work? Recession or no recession, that just shouldn’t be.

As it happens, just last week I renewed my subscription to Gourmet: two years for 18 bucks. Now they’ll probably stick me with Bon Appetit. Si Newhouse should be ashamed of himself.

Orr Shtuhl Launches Wordsworth. Music Lovers Rejoice.

In editorial on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 at 13:41

Orr Shtuhl was our arts and culture editor from the time we launched publicly until Brijit went on hiatus a little more than a month ago. I hired Orr on the spot when I met him early last September because, well, he’s got real skills. I’m thrilled to share that he’s now putting his smart, passionate voice to work in a handful of exciting places.

First and foremost, he’s launched, Wordsworth, a blog with the beautifully simple tag “Because they are.”  He describes it as “a blog dedicated to music and the words therein. Accordingly, there will be words to read and music to listen to…” He’ll also be regularly updating a themed, handpicked selection of a dozen tracks on Muxtape — the current collection of “Creepy Love Songs” is terrific. And finally, he’s running a column at The Morning News, a Brooklyn-based site that’s lucky to have the opportunity to showcase Orr’s savvy brand of music criticism.

I’m putting all three of Orr’s efforts into my personal rotation pronto… anyone who loves music should do the same.

New Abstract: Judith Warner on Modern American Misogyny

In Abstract Alerts on Friday, 6 June 2008 at 13:01

Read it and weep at the state of sexism in this country. Writes Warner on her Domestic Disturbances blog:

“In a culture that’s reached such a level of ostensible enlightenment as ours, calling a powerful woman “castrating” – however you choose to put it – ought to be seen as just as offensive as rubbing your fingers together to convey a love of gold coinage when you talk about a Jew. It’s nothing other than an expression of woman-hate — and the degree to which such expressions have flourished, in the mainstream media and in the loonier reaches of cyberspace this year, has added up to be a real national shame.”

Indeed.
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