Magazines are an artifact of the mass media age.
Maybe more than any media platform, the weekly or monthly print magazine feels increasingly anachronistic. This comes up regularly in the Media Economics classes I teach at SUNY Oswego. Almost every mass media platform - yes, even the beloved printed daily newspaper - serves a purpose in the digital age. But more than anything else, the print magazine feels of a different time. When you waited weekly for the big-picture look at the news, or monthly for the profile or investigative story. It’s built and designed for the age of scarcity, not the age of abundance we live in now.
It’s a lesson driven home by Tuesday’s news that ESPN The Magazine will cease print operations this year.
As a bunch of people are reporting:— Bryan Curtis (@bryancurtis) April 30, 2019
--ESPN The Magazine's last print issue will be September's Body Issue
--Nobody is getting laid off today but...we'll see, especially with people on the production side
--The magazine (per a source) lost single-digit millions in recent years
It’s hard to describe just how big a deal ESPN The Magazine was when it debuted in 1998. It was my junior year in college, and it was a nuclear bomb on sports journalism world. It was big - literally, the physical issues were ginormous - loud and brash. It was full color with inventive designs. It made Sports Illustrated feel dowdy and staid, very much your father’s magazine. SI was Rick Reilly making bad dad puns. ESPN The Magazine was Bill Simmons making pop-culture references and Marbury and Garnett.
But it’s not 1998 anymore. It’s 2019. The enemy, as Bryan Curtis said on my podcast last year, is the world.
It’s hard to too surprised, or to lament too much the loss of a print publication in 2019. Print, as a news/journalism delivery method, doesn’t have a robust future. It just doesn’t. Think ahead 30 years - will our kids be reading a print newspaper or print magazines? All likelihood says no.
And that’s fine. Print is just a delivery method.
Be honest: When’s the last time you read a print copy of ESPN The Magazine? Odds are you read an ESPN The Magazine story on ESPN’s website.
Why these sting so much is the way that we have conflated “print” with “serious journalism,” or with “real reporting” or whatever yay journalism saying you want to put in your own personal quote marks. It dates back to the pre-digital age, when it was how newspapers and newspaper people differentiated themselves from broadcast media. In the early age of digital media, it’s how newspapers defended themselves against the scourge that was "the internet." And it stuck. Print, as a delivery system, is value neutral. But print as a journalistic system is laden with values of the fourth estate, speaking truth to power, serious writing, etc.
Is today's news a loss? Of course it is. My heart goes out to the families who will probably be effected by this. It’s wrong to unabashedly celebrate progresa when people get left behind and hurt. But the fact is, no publication can survive losing millions of subscribers. And in this world, no one is going to subscribe to you unless you give them an unavoidable reason to.
This is a dangerous time magazines find themselves in. There is still a craving for the long-form journalism that has been the platform’s hallmark - the long features, the in-depth profiles, the investigative pieces. But those didn’t fill entire magazines, and the front-of-book content that does feels increasingly dated. It feels like a collection of stuff we’ve already read five days ago online.
There’s always a place in our world for magazine-style journalism.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a place for print magazines.