What is a magazine?

In his “From the Editor” column in the April 2010 issue of Popular Science, Mark Jannot tackles the subject of how well print media translates to the new digital formats like the iPad and the deeper issue of just what makes a magazine. After all, in today’s always-wired world of instant updates and interactive social websites, the very notion of a magazine that’s outdated as soon as it hits the presses has been challenged.

Writes Jannot, “Every time I summon up the vision of a paperless PopSci, my enthusiasm for the prospect inspires a certain horror among some readers, who write to let me know how betrayed they feel at the very notion of us migrating away from the pleasingly physical product that you’re holding in your hands.

“That said, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a magazine a magazine, and here’s my definition: A magazine is a periodically delivered package of stories carefully curated, written, and designed by an expert editorial staff centered on a topic of passionate interest for a group of readers.”

Jannot touches on two very important issues relating to the viability and importance of traditional printed magazines and journals in the 21st century. First, he mentions a “pleasingly physical product.” The psychological aspect of this cannot be understated. The arrival of a magazine, newspaper or trade journal often evokes the same feelings we experience when we open a gift package or see a mystery unveiled.

The cover of the publication hints at the wonders within. As we begin to proceed beyond the cover, it brings back memories of reading our favorite books or magazines from start to finish, whether they’re Hardy Boys novels or the latest issue of Seventeen, Forbes or Manufacturing Today. There is a very physical ritual involved in turning the pages, scanning the ads, and reading one’s favorite sections over and over.

The other key point that Jannot brings up is the notion of content. The Internet is full of seemingly authoritative content, much of which is unreliable because there are few filters or barriers to entry. Anyone with a PC and an opinion can look as professional as Reuters with the credibility of the New York Post. But when readers open a respected magazine or trade journal, they expect that what they read and see will be factual and accurate. There are high barriers to entry in the production of a publication, which generally leaves it in the hands of professionals, or as Jannot says, “carefully curated, written, and designed by an expert editorial staff.”

All of this suggests that due to the powerful psychological power of the printed word and our cultural tendencies to regard high-quality printed content as expert and factual, the era of the magazine, newspaper and trade publication is far from over. And that’s true. What remains to be seen is how to translate these powerful characteristics of print media to the digital stage. As Jannot says, “A glossy printed page is a great medium—I certainly don’t deny that. But for me, a full-color tablet redefines gloss completely.”

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