Magazines in time

When magazines become digital their relationship to time is profoundly altered. Paradoxically their relationship with time and our experience of time changes because the magazines themselves, even with a complete archive, are relatively unchanged; they change much less than other forms of digital media in the transition to digital. Magazines in print, with their issue by issue publication pattern, are good at trapping time and when they are transformed into digital databases they store our culture in ways that make the past very accessible and reusable. In the 19th and 20th century, magazines, with their regular new issues, were ways of gaining and consuming current information. But digital magazines are becoming increasingly indispensable as ways of preserving current information so that it becomes part of our cultural record for the present and the future. Digital archives are tools for accessing the past even more than they are silos for preserving the back issues.

Librarians classify magazines, along with newspapers, annuals, weeklies, reviews, journals and proceedings as periodicals (and note all the temporal connotations we find in those classificatory terms) and they are extremely useful in a print culture because they are a source of predictable and locatable news. The latest issue of a magazine carries news, and the previous issues are quite likely to be discarded even if, by the keenest collectors, they will be kept, probably in an ordered stack or on a shelf, so that they can be consulted to remind us of what was news then.

Early issues of Opera shelved

Fifty years ago magazines were very good at bringing their subscribers news of the latest developments in a field of specialist interest: for example Opera. The current issue of the magazine would have been urgently awaited and it would, for many subscribers, have been a primary source of current information. However the back issues would be relatively inaccessible (indeed quite possibly stored in the attic if there were too many of them) and they would have been very hard to search, so the current issue was the main focus of attention. This is not how digital magazines now work. Very few opera lovers will today rely primarily on a monthly magazine for news. We have so many more instant resources: blogs, Twitter and social media, Operabase, Google search. YouTube, and all the forms of live broadcasting. Magazines were fast moving sources of news 50 years ago, now, by contrast, they are relatively slow moving and that turns out to be a good thing. For their reports and reviews may be more carefully published than too-fast digital news. Magazines that are careful with their reputation are perhaps trusted more than ever before; no longer fast, magazines are a slow-ish medium that commands the respect we give to reliable sources.

We noted that magazines as experienced fifty years ago were relatively inaccessible and barely searchable. But now a digital magazine with a databased archive is easily browse-able all the way through and down to the first issue. We can view the archive in the Exact Editions system at the top level by navigating an array of front covers:

The early issues of the Opera archive

or we can click through, by decade or year and then issue, into a page view of individual spreads:

The first pages of the first issue of Opera

This point and click interface to a complete archive of the magazine is incomparably easier for browsing and exploration than cartons full of 850 individual issues of the print magazine.

Not only is a digital magazine archive much more browse-able, it will surely be fully searchable:

Searching the Opera archive for Montserrat Caballé

The curious result is that magazines have been transformed from being a source of current information into a much deeper and long-lasting source of memory and record. The current issue, in 2019, will still be for many subscribers the ‘easy way in’ but the full archival database gives us something that a print resource cannot match. Digital magazines gradually acquire a cumulative authority, largely because they are a way of taking the past with us. We may not need them so much for the instant opinion, or the latest rumour, but they are rolling up our past and our present to make an ongoing record for our cultural present and for our enjoyment in the future. It is this potential for carefully archived magazine resources to become even more valuable and informative in an accumulation of content that should be one of the most exciting developments of the digital turn that all our media are now taking.

Taking our Opera example, we find that the Opera Twitter account is happily mining the riches of the archive to chime with present interests:

Commemorating the anniversary of a remarkable refugee composer Ernst Hermann Meyer.

The wonderful story of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé

Or simply reminding us of the greatest diva with a remembered front cover

When a Twitter account uses a historic archive to comment on new developments or to commemorate forgotten composers or unforgettable stars (Callas) it is reversing the normal role of the archive, which is no longer a mere repository of old news but is in course of becoming a source for new thoughts and new interpretations. The future of the past, and from the past, is one of the things we can expect from digital magazines, echoing  T S Eliot (Four Quartets):

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

Billionaires and magazines

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Montagu Norman the cover of Time in 1929

Marc Benioff’s purchase of the magazine Time for $190 million seems to be part of a trend: billionaires buying prestigious magazines and newspapers. The trend includes Michael Bloomberg buying Businessweek, Laurene Powell Jobs investing in the Atlantic and Jeff Bezos buying and investing in the Washington Post. So why are these software billionaires buying such challenged assets at prices that are at least respectable in comparison to the valuations that might have been offered by traditional media investors? Billionaires are not buying prestigious book publishers or TV channels. What is so special about magazines?

It is suggested that one reason for acquiring these opinion-making publishers is that their owner thereby gains a degree of political and cultural influence. But this surely is not the whole story. $190 million spent on lobbying and pressure groups would buy the Benioffs a lot of direct influence in Washington and Brussels —  if that is what they really seek. Cultural influence is another matter, but cultural influence is only guaranteed to the owners of these publications if the publications continue to thrive (and have influence) in a digital environment. These publications have, and are surely seen by their new investors to have, a promising digital future. That is why they are buying.

So, the more interesting conclusion is that software billionaires understand that magazines in the digital age have a reach and a momentum that may not be accessible to other common forms of digital content. Consider the alternatives:

  • as a digital asset music is wonderful but short on cognitive content and it is really only owned by its composers, performers, and the audience
  • social media, has enormous leverage and currency (Marc Benioff was after all keen to buy Twitter ). But social media is anarchic, potentially polluting or reputation-wrecking, as Facebook is discovering. So if Salesforce owned Twitter it might have bought itself a lot more grief and no direct political leverage (which justifies the Salesforce investors who vetoed Benioff’s moves).
  •  blogging and podcasting are dynamic and cognitively rich forms of digital culture, but they share with social media the problem that they are somewhat anarchic and lack staying power, predictable cultural direction and cognitive position.

Why might the Benioffs, Powell Jobs, and Bloomberg value the cultural direction and cognitive position of the magazines that they have bought? The answer to this question (and a similar question about the Washington Post) is obvious. These media properties have a reasonably stable, desirable and persistent character — not just in their editorial, also in their style and audience. Time has a predictable, long running (recall the archive is 95 years deep), and persistent effect on the political climate of the USA and to a degree the Western alliance. Investing in Time is much more politically and culturally focussed than an investment in a social media or blogging platform.

But I think there is another issue here. Magazines and newspapers are reliably persistent (if no longer strictly periodical) in a way that reinforces and clarifies their cultural and intellectual position. Most digital media is not predictably positioned and influential in a specific cultural niche. When you buy a magazine — whether as subscriber or owner — you know what you are buying. So we should expect to see more premium titles being acquired by wealthy patrons who understand that a properly curated cultural icon (the New Yorker, the Economist, Vogue etc) is bound to increase its influence and its brand value in the super-fluid mix of digital content that we now inhabit. Precisely because the cognitive and cultural direction of these properties is well known and reliable, they have a centrality in the digital mix that is now quite hard to achieve and maintain. From this standpoint it perhaps makes sense that the Meredith corporation has found it hard to sell Sports Illustrated or Fortune but Time has found a savvy acquirer. There is nothing wrong with those two brands but they perhaps do not have the unusual position or depth that Time may promise to retain.

If this analysis is correct, it follows that brand values and reputations attaching to magazines are even more important in the digital age than they were in the print environment 30 years ago. Perhaps this explains another flurry of outrage from the last week. Ian Buruma was rather summarily and unexpectedly fired from his job as editor of the New York Review of Books for publishing (and perhaps offensively defending) a controversial and ill-advised essay by a #MeToo culprit. Firing the editor for his poor editorial judgement (a first offence) hardly fits the reputation of the NYRB, but this is an area in which the reputation of the publication might have been even more severely compromised by the essay concerned. In Reddit or Twitter the Jian Gomeshi/Buruma offence would have been an insignificant moment, for the magazine it was — the owners deemed — unpardonable. There is irony in the instant and viral outrage around the affair largely taking place on social media, and this is perhaps a warning for those elite reputations that make a stellar magazine brand. These billionaire owners should be hands off but they might advise their editors in the following terms: “try to avoid mixing your editorial approach with the climate and emotions in the hottest digital content maelstrom. That maelstrom churns every day and it might burn out brand”.

Smallish online now!

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Exact Editions are pleased to announce a new offering in the shape of luxury parenting magazine Smallish. This new magazine is now available as both desktop edition and app, and you can choose between quarterly or annual subscriptions.

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Whilst Smallish covers family life, health and education, the magazine also features fashion, travel and entertainment; “an inspiring read for discerning mothers who want more from a parenting magazine”!

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App for LittleONE Magazine

LittleONE magazine, a quarterly publication all about parenting, is now available on the Apple Newsstand.

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The title offers advice and inspiration to parents through interviews and features with other parents, as well as celebrating all aspects of parenthood, from pregnancy to dressing your child. The magazine is highly illustrated, and includes ideas on interiors, crafts and birthday parties.

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As with all Exact Editions apps, ByPlace™ functionality is available, along with the comprehensive search, social media sharing and bookmarking content for offline reading. Head over to the app store to subscribe now!

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Family Tree Online!

You can now read Family Tree online! The magazine from ancestry.co.uk provides records, websites and tips to help you trace your family history in Britain, Ireland and around the globe.

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An Exact Editions subscription will allow you to search all issues for key words and share articles on social media whilst also giving you tablet/smartphone access through the Exactly app.

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Subscriptions are available at www.exacteditions.com/familytree (and here for libraries!)

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