This piece, from the Toronto Globe and Mail, starts to get at something true: that newsstand magazines increasingly suck.
This pains me. I love magazines. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life making magazines — and, if I may be so bold, some pretty damned good ones. All too often, though, I find myself turning away from newsstands empty-handed.
A couple of months ago, I spent a few minutes in one of the huge magazine stores in Penn Station. The “laddie” mags (Maxim, HFM, Stuff) were set up next to the skin mags. Of the maybe 35 titles on display between the two categories, the one with the most restrained and dignified cover was Hustler.
The covers are only part of it. So much the inside of magazines these days is vapid. Sure, there are exceptions. But what editors and publishers have decided is the shrinking attention span of the reading public has resulted in entire magazines that look and read like frenetic fronts of the magazine — the thing that you used to browse past to find the real meat. Now, the browse is the meat.
Here’s what the Globe and Mail says:
Off-the-rack magazines, while claiming they preach self-love, in fact teach self-hate, including to those who pose for them. Female readers are told they’re failures; male readers are treated as stupid….
Summary: Most magazines are bad because they are forced by their owners to be Enron-level greedy, their mandate is to bankrupt their readers and their content is unspeakable because it’s easier to write badly than well. As for the weird numbered advice on their covers, as in 106 Ways to Perk Up Your Glutes/Kitchen/Wardrobe/Face/Life, there aren’t 106 ways to improve anything.
It’s what I’ve been saying for years and years: public ownership of media companies creates disincentives for excellence. The investment cycles required to build long-lasting media properties are directly antithetical to short-term financial performance. To cite an extreme case, it took Sports Illustrated 35 years to turn a profit. (Most magazines take five years, which is tough enough when you have to justify results quarter by quarter.) That Time Inc. is both public and devoted to franchise development is a miracle of corporate enlightenment. That Time Inc. stands nearly alone as an excellent public publishing company exactly proves my point.
Funny thing is, it used to be that celebrity magazines were the dumbest thing going; to be seen with a copy of Photoplay was to advertise that you were not a Serious Person. Now, of course, you have to be at least passingly familiar with People if you are to have a water-cooler conversation in most places. Full disclosure: I am an enthusiastic and long-time subscriber to Entertainment Weekly, but EW at least tries to be more about the entertainment than the entertainer. The line is sometimes fine, but it’s what keeps the cred.
Maybe the lesson is that cheese is what sells, but it’s possible to do cheese well enough that you don’t have to close your eyes when you read it.