A bad case of unreasonable optimism

Earlier this week, publisher Condé Nast announced the closure of Gourmet magazine. Also this week, it was announced that England’s World Cup qualifier against Ukraine will be shown only on the internet.

Although the latter announcement has caused a storm, no one has suggested that the news means the end of television. But the former announcement has been seized upon with wearisome predictability by the ‘print is dead’ brigade. The closure of Gourmet, it seems, is conclusive proof that all magazines, indeed all print, is doomed. On his Buzz Machine blog, Jeff Jarvis says that while once he believed that it was not yet the time to announce the death of magazines, “that ‘yet’ has now arrived”.

It ain’t necessarily so

Jeff has emerged as one of the high priests of the ‘print is doomed’ movement, although after announcing the death of print magazines he then goes on to say that, actually, he believes only that “most” print magazines will die. Some will survive. Although they are “an instant anachronism”. (I hope you’re following this). But it’s the headline claim that gets the attention, and he comments have certainly been flowing in as other members of the PID brigade have piled in with their tuppence-worth (or should that be ‘token electronic transfer amount’? Actual currency is sooo last century).

Among my favourite comments are “how is a cooking magazine ever going to compete with a good cooking Web site?” (try using your laptop on the same work surface as you’re boning a side of beef on and you’ll find out); “There is no reason a website cannot create the same brand value for an advertiser as print does” (the reverse is equally true) and – my favourite, in response to comment I posted suggesting special interest magazines were just one area in which print could thrive “I suspect your (sic) being unreasonably rosy about these special interests mags”.

Reasons to be cheerful

Well, we wouldn’t anyone to be “unreasonably rosy” I guess, we do like a bit of doom and gloom. I replied on the comments thread again, and I’ve abridged what I said there below.

Some magazines will close. Others won’t. One poster asked “How can Runner’s World the magazine possibly compete with the website?”. The answer is that Runner’s World the magazine doesn’t have to compete with its website. They operate together, offering different things. I use the website a lot. I also like to read the magazine – it’s very handy for when I haven’t got anything to plug into or my iPhone battery is low. (I also prefer reading a print page to an iPhone screen.)

Mags like RW and World Soccer have strong subscriptions bases, which enables a certain amount of forward planning and knowledge of readers’ wants. It’s why I specifically mentioned special interest mags. I also mentioned London-based RBI, a business publisher. Titles such as Flight International, Farmers’ Weekly and Community Care operate successful websites and print editions which complement each other. Staff on Computer Weekly say that the print edition drives people to the web, and the web drives print subs. See, complementary use of multiplatform media.

Take a magazine like the UK’s Take a Break. It still sells over a million copies a week. Its readers identify with what they see in its pages, they like to sit down with the mag and a cuppa and read it and do the puzzles. They could read the stories and do puzzles online. But they prefer the print version – not everyone is as tied to their computers as us media types. Personally, I think there is room for developing an online community around TaB – but publisher Bauer was never interested in doing this. But selling a million a week does make you think you’re doing something right.


Mags such as Grazia and Heat succeeded partly because people liked to be seen with them in their handbags – a status symbol, a badge of honour and style and attitude that sitting in front of a computer surfing on your own can never give. Or as Word editor Mark Ellen says in the latest issue of the magazine: “The internet is perfect for exploring tangents. But magazines can carry the most intricate thoughts and images, the ones you can only fully appreciate if you look at them more than once.”

Too many people are generalising about the future of print. One mag has closed. Others may. General news in print is in trouble – that’s where instant delivery and update and multiplatform approaches really put the classic model of journalism on paper under threat. There are many other kinds of journalism and many other kinds of publication that can thrive, will thrive, and which are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

(s)he bangs the drum

Why, you may ask, do I keep banging on about this so much? A few reasons, since you’re asking. Most importantly I believe we need to face down this tide of pessimism about what we do and what we can do. At a time when we have the technology to expand media brands as never before, to make connections and produce content that we spent years dreaming about, we are instead encouraged to rubbish the worth of much of what we do, and in so doing we are selling ourselves and our readers short.

A former colleague told me the other day of his profound frustration with “The obsession with the delivery mechanism. There is absolutely no respect for real skills that create this content: researching, writing, taking pictures and making things look nice via design.” He saw many media executives as “nothing more than haulage contractors, making promises to deliver whatever you want to wherever you want it. They don’t give a toss about what’s in the back of their trucks, planes and cargo ships. If good journalists didn’t exist, there would be nothing to fill these multi-platforms with, yet journalists are the least respected of all the professions in the supply chain.”

No doubt such strong views will be seen as the wailing of a dying breed, but I was encouraged by the passion for quality, for the worth of something creative. Far better than the passion all too often displayed for pressing the point of why so much of what we do is in fact worthless and obsolete.

Here’s to an outbreak of unreasonable optimism.

5 comments on “A bad case of unreasonable optimism

  1. Pingback: Martin Cloake: Conde Nast mag closures and ‘unreasonable optimism’ | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  2. Tom Davies on said:

    My hunch is that magazines might brave technological change rather better than a lot of newspapers, because of their featury nature, because they lie around the house for a month, because there’s more scope for depth. And because excellent photography and design still flourishes in magazine format.

    And often the best magazines have managed to survive alongside sharp web content. One example close to my heart – as both reader and contributor – being the football magazine When Saturday Comes, because it’s independently run and never made the mistake of treating its readers like lemmings or idiots.

    Are you able to go to the NUJ publishing industry meeting tomorrow Martin?

  3. Brits do pessimism very well. It has been the national sport since at least the 1970s. Like the country, print publishing still has a lot going for it. But. The next generation will use print differently, just as my generation used it differently from my parents’ generation. The problem is that it’s difficult to see how print will fit in to the future. So lazy people just proclaim the death of print.

    See, I think the Internet on a computer is actually mortally ill. People will use the ‘mobile phone’ to access the Internet, and I will tell my grandchildren about how I lugged around a 3kg laptop so I could send e-mails from an hotel room in Toronto or St Louis. How they’ll laugh!

    And in this world of ‘mobile phones’ acting as newspapers and radios and Twitter-style Internet, there will still be books and magazines. But exactly how that will be integrated into other media usage is, to paraphrase the 8-Ball, ‘Outlook cloudy, ask again later.’

  4. Melissa on said:

    Thank you for giving a heads up to the skills involved in making a magazine that are lost on the web.

    “The obsession with the delivery mechanism. There is absolutely no respect for real skills that create this content: researching, writing, taking pictures and making things look nice via design.”

    It is very true and not many people consider what would be lost if everything went the way of the web.

  5. I often think the same when I’m listening to a pub bore going on about ‘them worthless Mickey Mouse meeeja*/graphic design* degrees’ [*delete as applicable].

    Without design arts and eds, who on earth would take all those pix and design all those posters and pictures on street corners/cabs/buses/books/CDs/DVDs, not to mention all those intros and outros on every TV show you’ve ever watched, plus the editing of those shows, plus, plus, plus…?

    We’re all surrounded, every day, by hundreds of thousands of images, designs, videos and graphics that are the product of the creative industries. Some poor bastard has to learn his/her craft somewhere to do all that work.

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