OPINION: Digital mags are great but don't try and swat a fly with one

Before stepping on an aeroplane, I always buy a magazine. During that inevitable wait on the tarmac, which, if you’re unlucky, can stretch to an hour, a magazine makes time disappear. Once the ‘Please turn off all electronic devices message’ plays over the cabin speakers, when your iPod, iPad and laptop are rendered useless, the printed word comes into its own.

Magazines are intimate. They are a one-on-one medium. They hang around your lounge room, your desk. You take them to bed. But they are also personal in the sense that there are magazines for every obscure taste and interest. Whether you’re into Tortoise Racing or Medieval Puppet Collecting, no doubt there is a magazine for you. Of course, for marketers that translates to a tight, dedicated, open and engaged audience.

And there seem to be more titles and genres every day. For example, I’ve played guitar for years. When I was fifteen there was one (American) guitar magazine, inventively titled Guitar Player. Now there are at least ten more titles: Total Guitar, Acoustic Guitar Player, Guitar World, Fretboard Journal, Australian Guitar Player, Guitar Aficionado, Guitar Maker… the list goes on (it’s still not very imaginative).

And now with Zinio (iPad app), should I feel I’m not getting enough guitar related information, I can download even more obscure titles, from the U.S., France, Russia or Italy. I don’t even have to walk to the newsagent anymore. It’s all just a download away. If I ever get so fat I can’t leave the house, I’d still be able to read the latest article on Jack White’s Wah Wah pedal while I eat Chocolate Royals.

Digital magazines, unlike, say, digital TV downloads, still have ads, of course. But web magazines allow marketers to make their pitch interactive, link to video, websites or social media. So far I don’t feel I’ve seen this really exploited yet. We’re only at the tip of the iceberg.

Funny though, as much as I enjoy the technology and regularly search for magazines online, when I buy a magazine for my iPad it somehow feels less tangible, less valuable. I skim more, move on to the next article sooner. Why is that? Maybe it’s because reading from a screen just somehow feels less leisurely, more like research, more like work.
My first job was art directing a magazine. Making  a magazine is hard work. They say the most common number of issues of a magazine is one. Because, sure, it sounds fun to start a magazine, but to repeat the cycle every month is another thing. The grind sets in. People just run out of steam. It also means, God forbid, writing. Why do that when, these days, you can just aggregate stories on a website?

There’s a lot of debate about what the web is doing to journalism, exemplified by the documentary Page One, about the New Yorker newspaper. Their argument is that good journalism costs money. It takes real dollars to send a proper writer to Afghanistan or Iran or Syria, to get an in-depth story. If no one pays for it, those stories won’t happen. There will be nothing to aggregate.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the democratisation of the creative arts that the digital world brings. It potentially allows talent (in all fields) to rise to the top, unencumbered by the need for contacts in the business, the right connections or access to wealth. But, given this current obsession with user generated content, we can overlook the fact that, there’s a joy to reading the words (or watching the films, hearing the songs) of an expert, someone who has put in the 10, 000 hours it purportedly takes to reach excellence in any given field.

Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson started their professional life as great magazine journalists. They write with humour, style and flair. But it took work to get there. Could they have reached that level of skill without ever being paid? Then again, maybe the web will be instrumental in uncovering the next Hunter S. Thompson. It probably already has.

I think it’s kind of ironic that the rise of digital media has meant a return to the written word. The previous generation watched television. Now everyone is writing again, even if it is in condensed text-speak. There’s a huge amount of argument online, all using the written word. While most of it is inane (just look at the comments on YouTube), nevertheless, a generation of kids are being forced to write again.

Perhaps that’s why the short form of magazine writing is suited to this age. It’s not quite as utilitarian as newspaper journalism. More personal. Not as much of a commitment as a novel. In some ways the style exists outside the bounds of the physical magazine itself. That’s why, wherever we end up reading it, on a phone, tablet, downloaded straight into our brains, I think magazines will prevail.

Ant Keogh
Executive Creative Director
Clemenger BBDO Melbourne

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