A specialist subject

With mainstream titles going consumerist, specialists such as Figure offer a more exciting way to explore the culture

News that the age of the general interest magazine is over has become a truism in the publishing industry. I’ve heard it said on many different occasions: in panel discussions, business meetings and casual conversation. Someone will mention how much they respect The New Yorker, to which the standard, wistful reply is ‘ah the last great general interest magazine’. An easy  generalisation but an interesting observation. Interesting, but flawed.

The general interest magazine (ie GQ, Marie Claire) has traditionally co-existed alongside the specialist (Creative Review, Angling Times). The former offers a look at a broad range of subjects, the detail defined by an editorial filter based on demographics; while the latter provides a tighter, macro view of its specialisation based on a passion shared with its readers.

Over the last 40 years, general interest titles have been faced with new pressures on several fronts. The growth in the scale of the magazine industry and the consequent financial rewards has seen magazines that might once have been more challenging take on a more conservative character in an increasingly consumerist world. The idea that a general interest magazine – Esquire, say – might lead with a political story on its cover has long been lost in the rush to feature the star of this summer’s movie.

Ironically, this was in part led by 80s style magazines such as The Face and Blitz, seen at the time as new voices leading the post-punk explosion of creative self-expression. A generation of magazine-makers grew up obsessed by design culture, spreading endless pages of album, movie and product reviews across not only general interest magazines, but also newspapers with their new weekly review supplements.

What had been innovative and exciting gradually became the norm. At some point, ‘general interest’ became synonymous with ‘consumerism’. In a sense, then, general interest became specialist, and in that context proclaiming The New Yorker as the last great general interest title makes sense.

The flaw in that argument is that there exists another breed of magazine that can claim to be just as general interest as The New Yorker. Instead of using demographics to define their scope, independent magazines such as Carl*s Cars, The Ride Journal and Apartamento use their core subject (cars, cycling and interiors) as a prism through which to examine people and their lives.

In a curious twist, titles like these have become today’s general interest magazines, placing the knowledge of specialists in a broader cultural context and striking a more general chord. And it’s not only independents  -Bloomberg Businessweek’s success can be attributed to a similar attitude. It’s a business magazine that positions its core subject in the context of our broader culture.

A new independent launch goes further. Each edition of bilingual French/English magazine Figure promises a look at ten people or things. The first issue includes a celebrity (chef Ferran Adria); design blog manystuff.org‘s Charlotte Cheetham; a look at late 70s magazine, Fas:ade; a footballer talking about his art collection; a set of pictures of a toddler called Michelle… you get the idea. It’s a collection of people, selected with care, looking beyond the PR-driven agendas of the big magazines. That’s my kind of general interest.

Jeremy Leslie blogs at magCulture.com

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