Do Printed Magazines Have a Future in a Digital Age?

18 May 2020

Sometime last year, I wrote an essay for college, discussing whether the high street had the ability to survive in an industry dominated by online retail. Of course, this was prior to the drastic changes that have had to be made in light of this pandemic, but back then I'd concluded that it would. That physical stores could capitalise on USPs that online stores simply couldn't live up to (bearing in mind the current circumstances, this could soon be an entirely different story!). This made me wonder: will magazines, considerably vital attributes to the world of media, meet the same fate?

Printed magazines date back to the 1600s, with narrow themes covered and usually only one author behind the writing. It was then in 1732 that the term 'magazine' was used for the first time. Only in the early 20th century did magazines really become a 'thing', particularly fashion magazines, spurred on by an explosion of technical progress that enabled photography to dominate the scene. In a way, magazines were a tangible reflection of a period of radical social change.

But the appeal of printed magazines all came before one crucial player: the Internet. Now, in an age dominated by 'likes', reach and online interaction, it'd be difficult to argue that a paper magazine is able to generate more revenue than the online alternative. Publishing online is easy, generating an audience is simple if done strategically - add the right 'buzzwords' to the title, job done. Many of us make a sustainable living purely online. I don't know much difference, but I can imagine that not so long ago, even the notion that somebody could make a living purely from online content was unfathomable.

Another factor that comes to mind is the growth of the concept of 'sustainable' living. With so much of the world online, eliminating the need to waste countless amounts of paper, surely it'd only be right to move the magazine industry online, too? It was only late 2019 that magazine giant Marie Claire, launched in 1988, announced it would stop selling paper copies from November as it felt that "consumers and advertisers have accelerated their move to digital alternatives", causing its print advertising displays to fall "at rates in excess of 30% in 2019". One on hand, this could be viewed as a general desire amongst consumers for accessibility and simplicity. Yet, it could also be a sign of an underlying sense of guilt for buying paper, and a need to contribute to an eco-friendlier way of living. For a while now, we're being encouraged to live more sustainable lives in every way; from retailers charging for plastic bags, to plastic straw bans in McDonald's, the main objective seems to consistently return to green living.

Or, is it really just a case of 'virality' (I had to check, but definitely a word!) that is driving this digital approach? Bearing in mind, Marie Claire's justification for the suspension of its paper sales was to "best serve the changing needs of its audience's mobile-first, fast-paced lifestyles". Bearing in mind, it is probably a challenge nowadays for publishers to generate success without some kind of social media involvement. After all, social media seems to have made its mark as the basis of free, online advertising. And with the number of people using social media having surpassed 3.8 billion, it seems easy enough to achieve. So, not only is it the easiest form of advertising, it's also the cheapest.

With all of this in mind, it would be easy for me to say that no, in this online age, print magazines won't last long. But surely there's more to this story? What is it about magazines that keep them lining the shelves in our newsagents, bookstores and supermarkets? One theory is the desire and familiarity of a tactile magazine as opposed to scrolling through text printed onto a tiny screen. I suppose, in a way, the same could be said for books; the Kindle era came and went - the appeal of e-books, so desirable at the time, eventually gave way to the revival of the paper book. I know this because I did just this; bought a Kindle amongst all the hype, used it for a reasonably long time, before realising that actually, having a physical copy of a book was more appealing (and never needed charging). Although e-readers are still ever-present, the hype surrounding them has slowly begun to dissipate (having said this, however, this could partially be down to the establishment of the Kindle app, free to use and all the more portable. Did Amazon, therefore, crucify its own product with another? I suppose that's the power of creative destruction for you).

Something else to bear in mind is the 'experience' of the magazine. Nowadays, although digital has become our reality, printed content seems to provide some respite from the overwhelming online world, free from pop-up ads and distractions. More and more of us seem to be embarking on screen time 'detoxes' - a true testament to the adverse effects of the virtual world we now live in. There's also some comfort and nostalgia in being able to flick through a magazine, to a degree. It really does depend on the way we want to consume content - the aftereffects of digital articles, arguably, are short-lived, their content sometimes revenue-driven. The text presented in printed magazines can be digested, somehow, without the feeling of guilt for scrolling for an hour while racking up screen time. There's just something in the intimacy of a printed magazine that makes it more desirable than the online version.

So, all of this begs the question: does the printed magazine have a secure future in a digitally-led world? Honestly, I couldn't give you a definitive answer. I'd like to say I could, but the unpredictability of the lives we live, especially given the past couple of months, makes it impossible to determine whether the traditional magazine will ultimately succumb to the effects of a world that lives online, in every way possible. It's hard to imagine that print will overpower digital at any point but, maybe, in the end, they'll co-exist. After all, is one really better than the other?

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