This year has been an odd year for magazines. Plenty of people would have you believe that the following column will peter out after a couple of paragraphs, as I struggle to find anything creatively inspiring from another tough year for the industry. Yet I already know I could fill twice this space. The weird part is that both opinions are correct – from a financial point of view many magazines are struggling; yet creatively plenty are excelling. This year, I’ve come to realise these two seemingly contradictory measures are intricately linked.
First, a quick look at some of the big magazines. Familiar creative names dominate, particularly from the US. Bloomberg Businessweek continues to thrill, their recent preview of 2014 issue another huge statement of creative might. Incoming creative director Chris Dixon at last provided Vanity Fair with the heavyweight design to match its photography and writing, and Scott Dadich’s return to Wired (as editor this time) and his appointment of Claudia de Almeida as design director has meant its design has been restored to previous prominence.
The Gentlewoman now occupies a hinterland somewhere between mainstream and independent, such is its success and influence. This year it matched, if not superseded, the verbal and visual dexterity of its brother title Fantastic Man. Taking on the more conservative women’s market was always going to be a tougher ride than for Fantastic Man and the men’s market, but editor Penny Martin and art director Veronica Gittings have discovered a vital, unified editorial voice that reflects an audience ready for intelligent reading as well as strong fashion and beauty. Editorially it’s revolutionary, visually it’s one of the most beautiful magazines out there today.
Elsewhere Monocle continued its growth, proving a strong design identity can be the foundation of success as it celebrated its seventh anniversary. Its Monocle24 digital radio programming proved an astute redirection of digital resources, its Saturday programme The Stack being particularly relevant to anyone reading this column.
The iPhone overtook my iPad for reading this year. Previously I’d enjoyed the New Yorker and Guardian apps on the phone but my work with long-form publishing site Aeon made me pay attention to the smart phone as a reader. Aeon delivers one new essay a day, a single dose of content that is a clear promise of quality over quantity. A similar reining in of excess is provided by The Magazine, an app that delivers several new articles about technology every fortnight. This controlled delivery was quickly termed “sub-compact publishing” by analyst Craig Mod, a reference to the small, unadorned Japanese cars that challenged America’s boat-like automobiles in the 1960s.
This established a clear visualisation of the difference between, say, the fully-featured monthly Wired iPad app and the pared back simplicity of reading The Magazine on your iPhone, but also implied the latter was somehow lacking. In fact, simplicity is best for tablet and smartphone, spaces where convenience and speed are aided by small file sizes and limited controls. This last point was confirmed by the fourth edition of the Letter to Jane iPad app, in which creator Tim Moore again melded content and navigation in a hugely satisfying manner.
Overall, though, digital magazines continued to struggle. For all the creative and technical resource poured into them they still have a distribution issue, the one way in which they all too successfully mimic print magazines. Even apparently clever initiatives like Esquire’s weekly app launch have struggled to gain an audience.
Local to global
Perhaps the best digital news for magazines has been social media. Following the April bombing in the city, Boston magazine published a brilliant memorial front cover using runners’ shoes shaped as a heart. This simple graphic idea became a symbol of the city’s response to the tragedy, and thanks to Twitter went global in a way inconceivable just a few years ago (it remains the most viewed post ever on the magCulture blog). Magazine covers can now be seen as events in their own right, as Richard Turley pointed out in CR last month.
The relationship between local and global has become a central theme for independent magazine makers. For some time now magazines like Apartamento and Carl*s Cars have used common interests to provide insight into people – the global telling us about the local. Now there is a tranche of new titles reversing that shift. Der Wedding was probably first, using day-to-day problems facing the people, shops and businesses of the relatively poor Wedding area of Berlin as proxies to address more global issues of poverty and politics.
This year Flaneur emerged from the same city, using a single street – the commercial, touristy Kantstrasse – to explore universal subjects (its next issue is due soon, featuring a street in Leipzig). From the US came Local Quarterly, each edition featuring a different small, little known American town. In a sense these are printed blogs, using ‘Fragments of the Street’ as Flaneur puts it, to tell personal histories of the split city and using a derelict, once iconic modernist car park as a metaphor for changing times.
Blogs to print
In another twist, blogs and other sites continue to turn to print. It’s Nice That were there first, but This is Paper, HypeBeast, Freund von Freunden, Dezeen, YCN and Pitchfork are just a few recent examples. Their existence acknowledges the hidden hierarchy that positions an edited, printed item higher than a passing web post.
There are plenty of other independent launches from less connected backgrounds: FAT, Hole & Corner, Another Escape, Works That Work, Acid, The Alpine Review … the list goes on. These are all well designed and well produced with innovative thinking at their core. People ask me how many such launches there are, and I can only give vague answers. But in 2014 I’ll be counting the newbies as they arrive. And arrive they surely will. Tough though these times are, there’s an insatiable appetite for producing magazines. Rather than inhibiting experimentation, this tough environment is encouraging trial and error and providing some great editorial work.
Jeremy Leslie blogs at magCulture.com