Earlier this month MacFormat editor Christopher Phin set out to try to answer the following, deceptively simple question: What is a magazine? Phin’s contribution wasn’t designed to be the last word on the subject. Rather it was a collection of thoughts, an opening gambit to a conversation that is particularly live as we contemplate digital alternatives/replacements/companions.

Other have since chipped in (naturally there’s a Twitter hashtag — #whatisamagazine — pulling it all together) but it’s Phin’s original and Alan Rutter’s immediate response that strike a chord. Both are well worth reading in full but I’ve picked out what, for my money, are the most compelling points from each, arguments that throw down a challenge to those thinking digital.

First Phin:

A magazine is a curated thing; knowledge, refined … The amount of information available on the internet is one of its great weaknesses as well as a great strength; never mind finding stuff, never mind the cognitive overload required to track down all the good stuff and organise it; part of what you buy a magazine for is trusting that someone’s curated or created the best stuff about the things you care about. Can smarter algorithms obviate this? I suspect not, not without a change in AI that is impossible, practically, for us to envisage in all but the most abstract terms. But might they dramatically shift the balance? And what about filtering information that your social circle unearths? Does that circle jerk actually expose you to new, fresh, challenging information? Does it have to? And so on.

Rutter continues this thought when he writes that a magazine is Finite:

Sometimes when you’re thirsty, you’d like a glass of water – rather than having a firehose opened up directly into your face (that last bit represents the internet, by the way). As we curate, we create a cohesive and satisfying package. This can and is replicated in digital as well as print. Try giving a user a long piece of writing on a digital device without any progress bar, page counter or other indication of how far through it they are – they will hate it. It’s disconcerting. We like to complete things.

He adds that a magazine is:

An experience, not a commodity … Magazines that were primarily functional (classifieds, listings, basic news) have been the hardest hit by the rise of digital. But buying most magazines is an emotive act rather than a rational one. Vogue is not ‘task-oriented’.

This last point is difficult to overstate. Unlike Vogue, the Financial Times is ‘task-oriented’ (and a newspaper not a magazine) but the purchasing decision, like that of Vogue, is at least in part driven by emotion.

This is something that the FT editor Lionel Barber acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian a week ago. Having spent much of the interview reflecting on the importance of digital for the 125-year-old newspaper, he then sets out why print remains important (the emphasis is mine):

“It is still a vital source of advertising revenue,” he says, “and I want to make sure the newspaper survives for quite a while. It’s also a fashion accessory, a marketing device. And some people, admittedly our older buyers, still want to read newsprint.


Update: I’ve fleshed out these thoughts in this Press Gazette blog post.


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