What was the last magazine article you read? Where did you see it? Why did you read it?
In a few days Apple is expected to introduce a new device, affectionally known as The Tablet until then. Very few know what it will be, what it will do, whether it will be some kind of e-reader. Many publications are hoping, and preparing for, Apple doing with them what it managed to accomplish with music via the iTunes store. This is not about The Tablet, though inspired by it, but instead it is about magazines.
I love magazines. I blame my parents.
On alternating weekends, while growing up in Puerto Rico, my parents would get me and my sister in the car and travel to a different town, half hour away, to visit a small, hole-in-the-wall newsstand. I remember the place being crowded with books and shelves upon shelves of magazines from Spanish speaking countries. It felt foreign, European. I think it was owned by a Spanish family. I am probably romanticizing the memory.
My mother would collect stacks of oversized fashion magazines held for her. My father would pick up obscure books to complement his massive law book library. My sister and I would pick up comic books from South America. We would then visit a cafe and get small bags of deep fried treats, savory and sweet. And while nibbling on churros and drinking coffee we would read.
In that newsstand I discovered magazines. Back then my favorite was Muy Interesante - Very Interesting. Not Interesting but Very Interesting. A Spanish magazine full of fun science. I remember reading articles about how soap is made, about oxygen, about the vastness of the oceans. Every issue a perfectly random collection of information that I devoured with intense curiosity. I remember also looking at all those magazines, from all those different countries and noticing the ads, the designs, the diversity of the Spanish language.
Around the same time my parents introduced me to computers. A Tandy TRS-80, a Commodore 64, a Colecovision, with their big rubbery keyboards, my welcoming hosts luring me into the digital realm. I have vivid memories of my father sneaking me into a BASIC programming class he was taking at night, and me discreetly sitting at a terminal writing and compiling code for the first time, a simple program that printed “Hola” on screen.
In the early 90s, after college, and with me now living in New Jersey, the passion for technology and magazines grew. I dove into the deep end of the web before most people knew what it was. I created a website to promote the Rutgers Arts Center, completely text-based, an experiment really. I had an email account as early as 1987, one of the perks of studying computer science. In 91 or 92, I am not sure which year, I received a holiday gift (a mousepad, a coffee mug) from Amazon.com with a letter telling me that I was one of their Top 50 customers in New Jersey.
And I subscribed to everything.
I had subscriptions for Premiere, The New Yorker, American Theater, Theater Crafts International, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Interview and on and on. I can’t even remember everything I was subscribed to. I slept little and read a lot. I had books and magazines with me at all times using train delays and other inconveniences of travel as opportunities to catch up on reading. To me magazines were the perfect tool for exploration. By getting magazines I was allowing myself to be within reach of a multitude of ideas, opinions, visuals. I would clip and save articles and layouts I liked. I would get excited when I checked my mail and there would be stacks of magazines waiting for me.
Then the rest of the world embraced the web. Slowly I migrated from reading magazines to reading online with the added advantage that most everything was easily available and free. I still subscribe to a few magazines, Wired, Esquire, Communication Arts, because I like them as physical things - the thickness and richness of the paper, their fantastic layouts and spreads — as much as I like them as distribution mechanisms for information. On the other hand, the list of RSS feeds, twitter lists, and other online content I read surpasses what I read on any printed page.
Now we are exposed to as much random information as we want at all times. Feeds and streams of information like a fast moving river we can look at, dip a toe in or swim in as we wish. Then we write about our experiences in the river, our words contributing to the streams that make the river bigger. The problem with this transition is of course that we become the editors of the information we consume and therefore limit the amount of new information that enters our lives. For the most part we only read things we are interested in. Additionally, with that much information constantly available to us, a keen ability to discern, very quickly, what content we will engage with and what will be dismissed is needed.
There is great value to having an editorial voice, aesthetic and vision. A group of eclectic individuals curating ideas, putting together issues that include things familiar and completely new. That is the power of the magazine. The advantage that people that still seek magazines acquire.
But today, in 2010, what is a magazine?
There are sites online that have editorial voices as strong as any printed magazine. Even magazines that exist exclusively online, though they don’t call themselves magazines. There are individuals that single-handlely curate information in a way that rivals any established magazine. Printed magazines have begun to embrace the norms of the web in their formats with Esquire going as far as sometimes underlining in blue, like hyperlinks, phrases and words that have footnotes. What we are witnessing is the mashup of both worlds: rich content with a specific voice, supported by advertising, presented in a format that readers would embrace and pay for whether online or printed.
Online magazines are looking to grow and printed magazines have to change their business model or perish. Last year we saw the atrophy and death of many magazines, from the obscure to the Gourmet and I.D. Perhaps magazines should evolve to be printed only a few times each year as a supplement to the web, the reverse of the current model, with exclusive print-only content.
As a consumer of magazines and books, as a reader, something interesting has happened to me as a side effect of this evolution. When I am reading something that is actually printed I find myself completely aware of how much longer I have to read before I finish. It is not a short attention span or lack of concentration, I can still comfortably read for hours. It is a constant, almost unconscious calibration of the time spent with any given written piece. On the other hand, anything that I read on a screen lacks this distraction. I can read on screen, scrolling and scrolling, completely loosing track of time.
Which brings us back to technology. Next week Apple will, once again, put on The Greatest Show On Tech. Some kind of tablet will most likely be introduced. It will probably handle magazine content like this:
With Apple’s acquisition of Lala and the rumored expansion of iTunes to the web, soon your library of movies, music and most likely books and magazines will be in the cloud. The newsstand, now an ethereal concept, available to you everywhere. Apple will probably surprise us again and the device will not only be a tool for content consumption, but also innovate ways to create content of our own. I will probably get one and read more because of it.
This is all informed guessing, about Apple and the future of magazines, and for those of us that enjoy technology and reading, very exciting. One thing is certain, magazines in digital form guarantee no more loose subscription cards and no more perfume strips.