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.

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.

New Humanist Archive: An Invaluable Resource for Libraries

Institutions can now subscribe to the complete digital archive of New Humanist. The archive is a vast digital resource for institutional libraries, with a wealth of material dating back to 1884.

Subscribers will have complete access not only to New Humanist, but previous incarnations of the title, such as The Literary Guide, Watt’s Literary Guide, and The Rationalist and Agnostic Annuals. Past and present contributors to the magazine include Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, Robert Graves, Karl Popper, and HG Wells, to name but a few.

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The archive features a wealth of historically fascinating pieces – Philip Larkin’s celebrated poem This Be The Verse first appeared in this very publication (August 1971), and the magazine has seen a myriad of literary giants grace its pages since- George Bernard Shaw, writing on religion (1945); Irish Murdoch with a controversial piece about homosexuality (1965); Phillip Pullman, on the responsibilities of the writer (2014).

And the archive is not just for the literati, but for scholars in a range of different fields: religion, philosophy, humanism, politics. Richard Dawkins contributes to the publication in 1992, with an atheistic case against God, and Amartya Sen writes about the history and enterprise of knowledge in 2001. The views expressed, then, are diverse, and part of the wider discussions and movements that were developing in the 19th and 20th centuries – those of atheism, humanism and rationalism. Scholars will find the sheer range and breadth of the material compelling.

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Institutions from across the globe can now purchase a subscription to New Humanist, and it’s 133-year-old archive. Digital features include advanced search and browsing tools, bookmarking functionality, and sharing and citing facilities, making it an invaluable and exciting tool for students.

If you would like to purchase a subscription for your institution, please click here, or email institutions@exacteditions.com to speak with a member of our team.

 

Semantic Capital and Magazine Archives

Luciano Floridi, an Italian Professor at Oxford, is one of the leading philosophers of information. He is also interested in libraries and archives and has recently proposed a valuable use for the concept of “semantic capital” in relation to archives. His explanation was given as a lecture to the National Archives at Kew, and is available from their site.

I propose to summarise and simplify his explanation of “semantic capital” and apply it to the topic of digital magazine archives (very close to our heart at Exact Editions). For our purposes semantic capital is:

  • a stock of content growing and extended through time (a sequence of magazine issues published on paper monthly and held in library stacks would be a perfect example)

Chicago stacks By Ndshankar  Wikimedia commons 

  • the stock of content is held in a stable form where it can be subjected to new readings and new interpretations (a contemporary digital database of a magazine issue by issue, with new issues appearing as they are published, for example)
  • the content should be held in a canonical form so that new readings or interpretations can be compared with previous readings (so it is rather important that the content should be complete and searchable. It would be inconvenient if the digital archive was different in different institutions. Leaving out the advertisements or the illustrations from a magazine archive will not do)

Advertisements in the magazine Dazed are semantic capital

  • finally the semantic capital, is truly “capital” to the extent that this stock of preserved stuff can be used for new and unexpected applications. The capital can appreciate in value or depreciate, through damage or obscurity. It can be hoped that the capital will grow and so creates more cultural value.
  • From our point of view it is this last point that is key. In a digital culture, usable semantic capital needs to be searchable, cite-able, re-uasable, and share-able. Our print culture survives but it is vulnerable and needs to be transformed into reliable digital resources. Magazine archives in fact exist in great profusion, they are usually to be found as bound volumes in the offices of the publisher, or sometimes in boxes ‘off site’. They are also found as print issues held in institutional libraries — but in this form they are almost useless to contemporary students or researchers who increasingly depend on digital access to library resources. The point is that in a digital culture, cultural resources and assets now need to be digital if they are to be truly useful. Cultural capital is simply much more valuable if it is digital. I am not sure that we have yet recognised — magazine publishers especially — how much long term value can be created by moving content to a digital archive. Magazines archived and digitised in an appropriate and intelligent way will become much more valuable than the print-only source, and this is where the third point is also vital. The digital version really should be canonical so that very little will have been lost in the transfer from paper to digital memory. This is a very important and urgent point because the magazines that are digitised and databased whilst they are still published in print form are much more likely to survive and to be used in our growing digital culture.

    Print archives from magazines that have ceased publication or which have morphed into websites or where the ownership and provenance of content is unknown will very likely be lost. Archiving magazines is a way of preserving their value — not only for the long term, but now for the present, for the readers and the libraries who will be able to use and enjoy semantic capital that we have to an extent been ignoring whilst it is held only in paper formats. In a digital culture, semantic capital is of great potential value, for this reason we should be optimistic about the potential for digital culture, but it is also much more fragile so we should be careful not to neglect it. As Floridi points out ‘if semantic capital is not used productively it depreciates’.

The Library Advisory Board – Autumn 2018

The students are back at university, the trees are losing their leaves and people are sporting woolly jumpers again. At Exact Editions, we know that this change in the natural seasons marks the beginning of the manic ordering season for library resources, so we took the opportunity to pose a few potent questions to the library advisory board. The prevalent theme of this round of Qs was the discovery and usage of online resources.

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Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

Question One
Exact Editions have recently been working closely with discovery partners to have our publishers’ content included in their services. How essential would you say being included on discovery platforms is in the modern library market? Does metadata supersede all other elements of resource discovery?

Response
This was a topic of hot debate with effectively two sides; library discovery platforms and Google. First, in favour of the library systems, the board agreed that they rely on high quality, consistent metadata to function to their best ability. They are also becoming more able to leverage full-text using semantic search which will facilitate external discovery, as well as allowing for the intuitive finding of resources in the library catalogue.

Other members of the board disagreed, they argued that library discovery layers are flawed as they are not designed according to how library patrons do their work, but for how librarians believe patrons (should) do their work. This is not to completely discredit library catalogues, it is important to have a presence, but the main platform for discovery is now Google.

Exact Editions hope to cover both angles — we work with several discovery partners to make our titles visible in library systems. We are also exploring Google’s Flexible Sampling feature which will increase discoverability in search results, whilst also allowing viewers limited access behind our paywalls so they can judge the relevance of the content.

Question Two
How important are usage statistics in the decision-making process for renewals? What other factors are there to consider?

Response
Again we received some interesting answers, with the general consensus being that whilst usage statistics are very important at a base level for evaluating resources (cost-per-use), they do not paint a full picture. The board agreed that usage data can be unreliable and inconsistent. To quote one member, “usage data not as a good metric, but as the best bad metric available to us.”

The other key factor to consider was the presence of faculty advocates, a niche but essential resource may have low usage but be incredibly important to a few users. The overarching conclusion was that any renewal decision will be made due to a variety of factors, rather than sole reliance on one metric like usage data.

Question Three
Are there better ways to guide readers and researchers to the riches of deep archives? Do we need to find supplementary ways of discovering themes and cognitive routes into the resources?

Response
As predicted, the main advice was to use SEO to catch the all-seeing eye of Google & Google Scholar. Further recommendations were to look into pathways for semantic search such as; thematic ontologies or trending topics. In fact, the Exact Editions tech team is currently developing a mind-map feature which will use text reading software to suggest related topics to readers. We hope this will encourage readers to travel back through the archives which contain a wealth of insight.

 

As you can see, this was a very productive round of questions and gave us a lot of food for thought. We’d like to reiterate our appreciation for the contribution of time and effort by the Library Advisory Board, it is great to get some inside perspectives from within the community.

If you’d like to join the conversation, please do get in touch via institutions@exacteditions.com