Why Read Magazines? — The Value of Magazines as News Resources

To briefly introduce ourselves, Exact Editions is an online platform that works with numerous publishing partners to produce the digital versions of their magazines, so we like to think we know a thing or two about why they’re so important.

For over a decade now, we have advocated the strength and uniqueness of magazines compared to other sources of information. A large part of this has involved making significant headway into the academic library market by building archives of immense cultural value and offering them with site-wide access. Many of these archives speak for themselves, e.g. Gramophone and Sight & Sound, because of the depth and quality of the specialised content. The role of Exact Editions is to make this content as accessible as possible for users, by offering advanced search functionality, dedicated app access and other technical features, we facilitate audience growth and introduce new revenue streams for publishers.

We support the content.

So, why magazines? What makes them so special?

Quality Control

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Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

As you are reading this blog, I will assume that most of you are users of social media, whether that be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. Many of you will find the latest news via these sites, whether you follow specific individuals, or global brands such as the BBC, CNN or Al Jazeera. There are undoubtedly many benefits to the increased availability and freedom to information, however, there are also severe downsides. Take Twitter as an example, it is exceptionally easy to create an ‘echo chamber’ around yourself, by following only those whose views align with your own, many of us do this unconsciously without considering the consequences. Now let’s say that you do endeavour to seek out a variety of news sources — where do you start? The sheer volume of information being generated every second is enough to make heads spin. This oversaturation has multiple effects: increasing the use of buzzwords in articles to attract attention, reducing the attention span of readers and lowering the quality of journalism in favour of quantity.

Magazines address this problem perfectly.

Magazines crystallise the culture of the time, succeeding where social media fails. They are released on a regular timeline, affording them a nimbleness unmatched by book publishers and an orderliness absent in social media. This regularity ensures that magazines have a contemporary focus, offering prudent commentary rather than reactionary headlines. The editors act as guardians of information, they filter through the white noise to find the important voices and events. They then thread these voices and stories together to form cohesive, well-informed arguments that challenge readers to think rationally and deeply. Not only is this useful in the modern world where we fight against a tide of fake and fleeting news; it is also useful for preserving the defining moments and influential figures of each generation for future generations. Combine this with the growing accessibility of complete archives of magazines and you realise that magazines provide us with a reliable thread back through history. Think of them as Ariadne, offering you, Theseus, a spool of thread as you make your way through the labyrinth of the internet in search of dependable news.

Political Bias

Why read magazines to find news when we have newspapers? I hear you cry. Well, with political allegiances rife and visible, many newspapers are no longer able to legitimately claim a stance of neutrality. Magazines largely fall outside of that category as they are typically focused on specialist subject areas. This sharpening of the lens affords them the freedom to explore topics without having to worry about the overarching views of the brand they represent or the political view they advocate. This can work both ways; for example, Geographical benefits from viewing issues in terms of their global relevance, whereas Tate Etc. is focussed purely on the interpretation of art.

The point is that although magazines inevitably interact with and are influenced by politics; they are not shaped by politics.

*Of course, there are political magazines out there with agendas, and politics filters down into almost every aspect of life, however, magazines do operate in their own journalistic sphere which is less subject to outside influences and more content-oriented.

Again, I would also like to return to the problem of ‘echo chambers’. By and large, newspapers appeal to those who agree with the news they publish. Only the most dedicated follower of the news will actively purchase different newspapers to widen their perspective. Magazine readers, on the other hand, are often forced to chew on articles that don’t necessarily align with their political or cultural views. This encourages a broadening of the mind and is healthy for readers.

Style / Design

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Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

This one is simple. We all love great visuals and design. Our brains are hardwired to enjoy neat edges, fancy fonts and sprawling high-quality double page spread images. Magazines offer visceral imagery that is missing in books and academic journals. We should not only consider this in aesthetic terms, but also in terms of academic value. Photos have the power to take the reader directly to the political situation in Libya, or to the depths of the Amazon Rainforest, they encourage engagement and make content easier to digest.

There is more to design than meets the eye.

In some fields, design isn’t a luxury, it is essential. Magazines that cover topics such as; modern art, architecture, ceramics and fashion are obvious supporters of the magazine format. But the need for style stretches far beyond these topics. Think poetry, think science, think business. They need specific formatting, diagrams, infographics. Magazines afford publishers the freedom to be creative and to devise new ways to inform their readers. With digital technology now able to replicate complete archives with pinpoint accuracy, magazines should be go-to resources for academics and rational readers.

The Future of Magazines

To start with a statement. Modern society is perpetuating an insatiable drive for innovation and new features in the digital world. This demand shows no signs of slowing down, but is change always the best course of action? In the magazine market, let us indulge ourselves for a moment in musing about what may come in the next ten years — more video content, better audio capabilities, personalised integrated ads, compatibility with new technology such as VR, etc. It is easy to become excited by these ideas, just for the sheer novelty factor, but in reality, the discussion would benefit from everyone taking a step back and viewing the history of the magazine afresh.

Think of a magazine, any magazine, print or digital; what is the first thing that comes to mind? The front cover, right? Think Vogue. That iconic choice of font, the recurring layout, the photography. The cover is the entryway to your favourite periodical. Once you’re beyond the cover, then you’re reading the content, which is the flesh and blood of any magazine. Without good content a magazine won’t sell subscriptions, that’s a fact. Magazines can import as many gimmicks and new features as they like, but without consistent, high-quality content they will not survive. The point is that there exists a core set of principles which define and constitute a magazine. These principles are timeless and should not, and likely will not be forsaken for new gadgets. For example, we have long had the capability to import videos into digital magazines, but it remains an uncommon practice. Why?

article imageWell, to put it simply, they’re not needed. That is not to say that digital is the enemy. There have been many amazing features added to magazines in recent decades that have only been possible because of the development of new technology. New audio capabilities and text-reading technology have been used to develop tools that assist disabled persons in accessing magazines. This text-reading software also means that archives can be searched by keyword, which in turn allows the indexing of the content, increasing discoverability and usability in one fell swoop. Citing and sharing articles via social media has never been easier, creating a self-sustaining marketing to attract new subscribers. You will have noticed by now that none of those features alter the content of the magazine in any way, they solely facilitate the reading and distribution of the magazine.

Commercially, perhaps the two most important changes have been the digitisation of archived issues and the development of dedicated apps for magazines. Most periodicals now have their own apps and/or digital version. This portability has opened up a brand new market for magazines, as well as allowing longtime subscribers the freedom to read their favourite magazine wherever they are. Working in tandem with this is the increasing desire for old, archived issues which have been gathering dust for years in libraries and private collections. Scanning technology has meant that magazine owners have been able to bring the past into the present. This has hugely increased the value of magazines as academic resources and as unique windows for our cultural history.

To conclude, there is clearly a digital presence for magazines. Yet there are still print loyalists who have not embraced the demand for online resources. Signs indicate that publishers who build their digital archives and make them available to current readers and subscribers are making their magazines into digital survivors. Many magazines will be lost because they have not invested time and money into making the digital archive work now. It is a matter of foresight, publishers should always keep one eye on the future. A reactionary policy is a dangerous game, and even with a reactionary policy, publishers must realise that we are now living in a digital world. By crystallising their archives publishers would be guaranteeing their content is available for future generations, and as previously said, preservation of good content is the paramount aim of digital publishing.

How to Present Digital Magazines

Part of the joy of reading magazines, as opposed to books and journals, are the inventive cover designs and enthralling double spread images contained within the pages. The physical appeal of magazines, combined with engaging topical content, is perhaps why many readers and institutions are so proud of their large and growing collections of archived issues. But what about those collections which are missing a few issues? Or those archives which have outlived several generations of readers? It can be a laborious process hunting down a print copy of a magazine issue which hasn’t been printed for 30 years.

Luckily for these readers, the aesthetics of the print version can naturally move on to the digital platform, particularly with the technological development of better screens which now elucidate every minuscule detail of the original. Not only that, but archives can now be preserved ad finitum with no risk of decay or misplacement. This means that a wide audience of readers can experience these archives in their entirety, whereas in the past those old issues may have been confined to dust-gathering shelves in library vaults. Because of digital preservation, these archived issues can be given a new lease of life, finding new readers many decades after they were first published. In an academic sense, the availability of archives opens up new windows of opportunity for researchers by facilitating quick, easy and reliable access to previously rare resources.

A key question for digital providers must be — how do we present these resources to the world? One neat approach is to use a Stacking Interface to organise the archive by decade and year. This system encourages the reader to observe the development of the cover design (an essential feature of any successful magazine) through the years. The Stacking Technology also offers users an elegant and intuitive interface for browsing through older issues, especially when combined with an intelligent search feature. For example, a reader may wish to search Geographical for coverage of deforestation in Brazil, but only in 1994, and the Stacking Technology will automatically narrow the search results. This technology transcends devices and is available on Web, iOS and Android platforms. The power this offers to academics goes without saying; fast, efficient research in a friendly format.

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Geographical Archive — Stacking Technology

What does this mean for digital magazine providers? As more and more magazines recognise the value and importance of their archive, it is likely there will be continual drive towards digitisation. Print publishers will be searching for the best way to present their backfile to the world. The Stacking Interface has already found many supporters in both publishing and academic circles as it offers a dynamic combination of utility and style. Stacks are a great way of organising deep and informative archives, and because of the periodical nature of magazines they will only continue to become more impressive.

Ancient History Magazine: Review

Ancient History, published by Karwansaray based in the Netherlands, was added to the Exact Editions platform during October 2017. The bi-monthly magazine makes excellent use of commissioned images to complement original articles and bring the ancient world to life; this format translates beautifully to the Exact Editions platform which exactly replicates the original print version. The preservation of the magazine’s format is a very important factor for researchers and readers as it maintains the intended structure, style and visual content of the publication.

Each issue of Ancient History revolves around a specific theme, with the most recent at time of writing focusing on health and healing in antiquity. The articles are written to an academic standard with contributions from professors, research fellows and experts in the field, often discussing the latest scholarship. The entries are generally a few pages long and serve as informative and accessible introductions to the topic, suited to all levels of study. These short articles are supplemented with suggestions for further reading making the magazine a great starting point for introductory learning.

Beyond the featured theme of each issue there are also special features on niche topics of interest, for example a close examination of Rome’s Seven Hills and how that geographical feature contributed to the city’s identity. These articles cover rarely discussed topics which could inspire a new line of research at university level, or enlighten a student who is struggling to find literature surrounding their special interest. Again, for any readers wishing to explore the material further, each article comes with very useful recommended reading. Ancient History even include reviews of the books recommended in each issue so that students can be sure of the relevance and quality of the literature.

The informative Ancient History magazine is enhanced by the fluid Exact Editions platform, with technical features such as fully searchable pages and issues, access to the complete archive and shareable pages by social media and unique URLS. The advantages of being able to search every page, issue and the entire archive by keyword are manifold; however, the feature really comes into its own when searching for an obscure reference. For example see the image below, in which I searched for Apollonius and found he was mentioned in Issue 4 & Issue 5.

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Search results for ‘Apollonius’ drawn from the archived issues of Ancient History

Once the user has found the articles mentioning Apollonius, they may wish to save or share the page for future use. This can be done in several ways, either by bookmarking the unique URL, sharing the article via social media or email, or by saving the page as a PDF file. This guarantees an easy way of citing sources for essays and making use of the online magazine as a classroom resource. All of these options can be seen on the bottom toolbar of the image below.

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A double page spread. Note the menu beneath the page image with options for social sharing

Overall, Ancient History offers an excellent resource for libraries looking to provide their readers with academic material covering the ancient world. The content of the magazine is written to a high standard by experts in their respective fields, accompanied by wonderful, educational imagery. The short, succinct articles offer a superb entry point for students, especially with the additional recommended reading which points readers in the right direction for future research. The technical features of the Exact Editions platform complement the subject material of Ancient History very usefully, offering a variety of shortcuts and additional features which provide a level of versatility above and beyond the print version.

Ancient History is now available on Web, iOS and Android platforms for institutions: https://institutions.exacteditions.com/ancient-history