By: Peter Houston
In 1929, Surrealist Rene Magritte painted a picture of a pipe with a label on it that read, “This is not a pipe.”
When most people see The Treachery of Images for the first time they get a little confused… ‘Of course it’s a pipe. What’s this crazy Belgian on about?’
Magritte’s point is it’s not a pipe, it’s a representation of a pipe. He set up the disconnect between the picture and the words to spark a dissonance that would, hopefully, start a conversation about how images and art work.
Every time I read the phrase ‘Magazine Media’ I feel like the magazine business is playing the same surrealist trick, but without having the useful discussion around how magazines work.
So, you publish magazines, but you’re not a magazine publisher?
No, we’re a ‘Magazine Media’ business?
You make media about magazines?
No, we make magazines and media.
But aren’t magazines media?
And so it’s been for a decade or more, the magazine industry tying itself in knots around this deliberately ambiguous doublespeak in a desperate attempt to:
A) Make itself feel better about how it’s doing in digital.
B) Disguise the fact that it still needs legacy print revenue.
Before I’m accused of curmudgeonly hair-splitting (again), I get it. It’s important to show investors and staff that we’ve moved on. It’s not business as usual. We don’t just smear pigment on dead trees any more.
And yes, most modern magazine publishers work across a variety of media. They do the web and apps and email. They run social channels, make video and audio, sell stuff online and run events. These days, successful magazine publishers do much more than print magazines.
But why do we have to try to shoe-horn a multifaceted, multiplatform response to the disruption in the magazine markets into one, largely meaningless, catch-all, phrase?
Rather than highlight the fact that the majority of magazine publishers have enthusiastically extended the boundaries of their portfolios, the addition of the ‘Media’ qualifier displays a stark insecurity around the analogue foundations of the business.
It creates the sense that being ‘just’ a magazine publisher isn’t good enough. It suggests that a re-branding is necessary because admitting any connection to old-school magazine publishing is shameful.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think words matter and, in this case, the ‘Media’ add-on is being used to hide some inconvenient truths.
Magazine Media sounds technical, not like it makes most of its money from inky paper.
Magazine Media sounds new, not like it rests on a 300-year old format.
Magazine Media sounds dynamic, not like an industry struggling with disruption.
In a ‘Confessions’ post earlier this year, Digiday reported from the American Magazine Media Conference. One anonymous executive claimed: “The people that are left on the print side are just manning the wheel, and they’re not asked to come up with any ideas.”
I don’t think that’s true – Empire’s Fantastic Beasts cover shows there are still innovations in print magazines - but I can understand why it was said: It’s easier, and possibly safer, to stick with the Digital Good, Print Bad mantra that replaced Magazine conferences with Magazine Media conferences.
The future’s not digital
Yes OK, the future is totally digital, but bear with me.
Almost 20 years ago, the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, wrote in Wired magazine: “Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence…”
And he was right; we rarely talk about digital cameras any more - they’re just cameras.
When I talk about magazines, I don’t think of just printed pages. A magazine to me is a sophisticated multi-platform undertaking that harnesses a huge spread of content-creation, content-management, distribution and analytics technology.
The new bits in magazine publishing, the ‘Media’, should be secondary to magazine craft, skills held by people that made magazines long before they had to think about multimedia.
Back in 2015, Diageo CEO Ivan Menezes – a man with a billion-dollar budget – told Mark Ritson: “It is not about doing ‘digital marketing’, it is about marketing effectively in a digital world.”
Equally, it’s not about doing ‘Magazine Media’ (whatever that is), it’s about doing magazines effectively in a digital world.
Calling what magazine publishers do ‘Magazine Media’ does nothing to describe what the modern magazine industry is about. And if we are to get to the other side of the digital disruption we need to do a much better job explaining – to readers and advertisers alike – that magazines are much, much more than they used to be.
I don’t expect ‘Magazine Media’ to go away, but I would love it if sometime soon we could just talk about magazines again and take it as read that includes all the platforms and content formats that magazine publishers routinely work with, and all those still to come.
We need to focus on doing the magazine bit effectively rather than the media bit. Magazines have always been about audiences, about affinity, engagement and relationships. Whatever media we use, we should be magazine publishers first.
Without that, we’re just more media.