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The End of Magazines as We Know Them?


I've spent the last several days contemplating -- and fretting about -- a piece that the writer Jesse Kornbluth contributed to Mediabistro.com last week. Its title: "The Internet Tail Will Come to Wag the Magazine Dog." His main point is that magazines as we know them are essentially dead -- or, to be fair, nearly dead. Let's say ill, with a not very encouraging prognosis. On their way, rapidly, to full rictus.

This is very sad news to someone like me who has spent his entire life loving magazines, working for them, and creating them. I'm a complete, unabashed magazine nut. They've probably played far too significant a role in my pathetic little world. There was a time, honestly, when I'd select my flights based on the magazines the various airlines stocked onboard. So really, I'm a full-fledged magazine sickie.

But sadly, Kornbluth is probably right about the future of mags. Like newspapers, which have been in steady decline for years, magazines are in trouble. And it's almost all because of the Internet.

Can't we have both -- a vibrant Internet and a rosy-cheeked magazine community? Very possibly not. Someone's gonna feel the hurt, and we already know who that is. The balance of power and influence is tipping, perceptibly, to the Web. This is true for both consumer magazines (the glossies) and trade titles.

I don't hate that. (Okay, I am openly lying here.) It's an inevitably. (Not a lie.) And, of course, I'm a huge fan of the Web, which helps soothe the pain. If only magazines weren't so terribly vulnerable to the Internet's powerful allures.

As Kornbluth explains, though, there are few things magazines do that the Web can't do better or faster. Sure, you can't role up a Web page and tuck it into your pocket on the way to the beach, as you might with a mag article, but you can print the piece from a Web site and take it with you. You can probably interact with its writer. You can enlarge the art and examine it more closely. You can call up related video clips. You can instantly link to additional info about virtually every reference in the piece. In other words, the Internet has insurmountable advantages over the print-edition magazine.

Damn. That sucks.

Can magazines fight back? They can, and they will, but ineffectively, I fear. They are beautiful to look at (some of them, anyway), they offer a delightful tactile experience, they are a lovely addition when scattered about one's handsome study. There will probably never be a way to duplicate the experience of leaning back in a big old armchair and spending quality time with a stack of your favorite mags. Personally, I'm going to continue to do that. Increasingly, though, that'll probably be viewed as quirky behavior. Anyone under the age of 30 will think it an egregious offense against the natural law of man.

I know that magazine makers everwhere stay up nights worrying about the way the Internet is encroaching on their turf. The smart ones have set up collateral Web sites. Those sites -- the best ones -- are seeing greater traffic with each passing week. At least for now, this won't hurt magazines that feature long-form editorial -- The Atlantic, for example, or Vanity Fair -- but those books are mighty few in number. If you're in charge of Us Weekly, however, what's your edge over your companion Web site? Can you think of any? Is there an economic model that favors print?

Look, I'm going to hang in there, fighting for traditional magazines, the ones that come bound between covers. (Ah, great covers -- that's a cultural contribution we must preserve at all costs!) For me, there's nothing that compares to the magic that occurs when type and art collide on paper. I realize, though, that the action is migrating to the Web. You can feel the tide shifting, almost by the hour.

Damn. That sucks.

But life -- if not LIFE -- will go on.

I'll adjust. But ... damn.

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