Magazines: Lively, Smart, Radioactive, Dead



Having devoted a chunk of my life to writing for and editing magazines, I wondered whether Jeff Jarvis’s smart little chronicle, Magazine, would feel like nostalgia or PTSD.

He opened so well, it ceased to matter.

The pages of books, Jarvis wrote, “give the tactile impression of a dowager’s fine linen stationery.” The smooth, bright paper stock used in magazines, by contrast, feels industrial-modern—and is coated with kaolin, a white clay that often holds traces of uranium and thorium. “Thus magazines are ever so slightly radioactive, which is appropriate, as the form is proving to have a half life.”

Ouch. This book-about-magazines lives in Bloomsbury Publishing’s popular Object Lessons series, edited by Washington University’s Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg. A journalist, author, critic, and academic, Jarvis started Entertainment Weekly, which he now says “might have marked the beginning of the end for the preeminence of the form.” A wry, amusing admission, but many hands swung the rope for that death knell. Editors who chickened out and fluffed up their content. Writers who let PR flacks insert nose rings and tug them about. Supposed digital experts with no idea how to smooth the transition or “monetize the internet.” Owners who sold, slashed staff, or played monopoly. Influencers who usurped the magazines’ curators of taste. All that internet content offering free advice….

On my side of the famous wall between advertising and editorial, it was easy to ignore the coup de grace: plummeting revenue. We were supposed to ignore the spreadsheet. Owners cannot. When Ben Franklin started his General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America (an eighteenth-century version of TIME, I imagine), he announced, “We desire no Subscriptions. WE shall publish the Books at our own Expence, and Risque the Sale of them.” The publication folded after six issues.

Jarvis tells that story with no glee. He loves the form as much as I do, and as he recounts the lively history of magazines, he finds the story of larger cultural shifts. The first magazines, he writes, were coffeehouses, curating—before the word came into vogue—the best writing, criticism, poetry, advice, and images. Even the word “magazine” was a French derivation from the Arabic word for storehouse. Those smooth pages collected and preserved treasures.

“I shall be ambitious to have it said of me that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges,” said Joseph Addison, cofounder of Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian.

Founded in 1731, Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine billed itself as “a repository of all things worth mentioning.”

By the 1800s, with more of the English-speaking world in communication and knowledge blooming, editors had stopped trying to be comprehensive. Instead, they sought out niches, starting women’s magazines, literary magazines, religious magazines, abolitionist magazines…. The tone was often gently intellectual, a gathering of the latest ideas and opinions. For quality, they still aimed high: Godey’s Lady’s Book included Emerson as one of its contributors.

Jarvis pins the next shift, the birth of mass media, to 1893. The U.S. population had more than tripled since 1850, he notes, and literacy was up to 90 percent. Magazines were kathunking off those hissing new steam-powered presses in record quantities. Photographs and steel-engraved illustrations had unprecedented detail and richness. Investigative reporting was coming into its own, with plenty of muck to be raked. And national audiences, not yet cynical, were eager to pore over ads and stories.

“With magazines came a cementing of class culture in America,” Jarvis maintains. The bourgeoisie had no butlers to tactfully guide their choices; they needed the tastemakers’ help to seem just a little more refined, a little more au courant, than they were.

I entered a magazine world that was still in that mode. From the late eighties through the early 2000s, city magazines, especially, rode a wave. They were meant to be—a word I gagged on—“aspirational,” showing readers what was glossy and gorgeous, hip and slightly edgy, and just quirky enough for a middle-class sensibility. Readers wanted to be told how to live, we were regularly reminded. They saved those lists of must-haves and must-sees and 101 things to do in St. Louis and the best restaurants and the best places to buy off-season cashmere or hamsters or spatulas.

I lived for the profiles, think pieces, photo essays, and true crime tucked in between. What I loved about the form was the tension, drama, and euphoria of the collaboration—and the inherent conflict in the structure. Publishers watchdogged editors, editors fought with art directors, authors railed against editors…and the result was a sharp and thoughtful wedding of words and images. Granted, the writers were always sure their ink should take up more space than the pictures, and the designers were constantly angling for large images and white space. Lined up on opposite sides of the pitch, they kept themselves poised for battle. But with sufficient talent and civility, they nearly always wound up improving each other.

Only two parts of a magazine fail that test. First, the ads, because the creative side has to, or should, keep its paws off them. They are present only to pay editorial’s rent and steal its street cred. Once we held a series of focus-group lunches with subscribers. I nearly wept into my salad when we asked what was working and a woman chirped, “You have such beautiful ads!”

The ads should be irrelevant. They are slick baggage one tries to ignore, except for making sure they do not land adjacent to a bloodied tale of a murderous scandal. Not the right “environment,” the client would groan.

The real Waterloo is the cover and its cover lines. At first I thought we were aberrant, a fumbling St. Louis staff unable to fathom what came easily to the others. But no, Jarvis says covers are always “worked over like a criminal under interrogation, changed and tried and tested in meetings and mirrored focus group line-ups.” (We just asked a few sales reps and the receptionist.) What words will jump off the newsstand and pry open somebody’s wallet? Is it better to question or insist? How many Five Ways, Ten Tops, and Fifteen Must-Do’s can the reader absorb without an abacus?

Jarvis lists the commandments sent down from on high by People’s founding editor, Dick Stolley: “Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor….” At various times I tried to challenge each of those assertions—and lost. I consoled myself by focusing on the editorial well, perhaps so named because we were always tossing something in and making a wish.

After describing the golden age of the magazine, Jarvis neatly sums up its sins, noting that magazines “can also be blamed for the banality of mass culture, the condescension of mass media, the epidemic of celebrity, the exploitation of base emotions, the undermining of self-confidence next to idealized beauty, and the attention economy.” Rather a sweeping condemnation, but an arguable one, especially if the charges are carefully apportioned among hundreds of wildly varied magazines, all with avid subscribers. He skewers the worst, “products of an editorial dairy farm where writers’ raw milk was skimmed of its cream, heated up, and homogenized so it all tastes familiarly smooth.”

Writers used to joke that the first words cut were invariably the most original, fresh, and unusual. The one thing not like all the others.

Now all that grumbling has faded. We are too grateful that any magazine still publishes. One year, at the beginning of the end, TV Guide saw an unexpected drop in response to its annual readers’ survey. Puzzled, they did a follow-up, recalls Jarvis, who was then their “couch critic.” Turned out 80 percent of those who had not returned the survey should have had a forwarding address—to a cemetery.

At last check, he continues, the top circulating magazine in the U.S. was the AARP magazine, with the AARP Bulletin as number two and Costco Connection ranked third. You will notice that I did not italicize those titles. I could not bear to.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.