The Future of Magazines: Two Paths Some Are Taking to Survive

The City and Regional Magazine Association has an annual editorial awards competition—the 2017 winners recently were honored. For the past six years, I’ve been helping to judge the competition in the general excellence category. Because of my longtime connection to the Washingtonian, I’ve been judging only the under 30,000 circulation category or the 30,000 to 60,000 category.

Judging the under 30,000 category this year made me think something significant is happening and is this where magazines are going?

The first change was the emergence of more upscale editorial and design—bigger format, better paper, lots of  smiling people pictures. Some of the judges had only these more upscale magazines—among them Palm Springs Life, Gulfshore Life, Sarasota, Greenwich, and Sonoma—as their five finalists.

Also in that upscale mix were Memphis and Louisville, in the past more traditional city magazines but now looking more affluent. Two of the more traditional city magazines—Columbus Monthly and Madison—made it as finalists but only after some debate over how much journalism did a magazine have to do to become a finalist in general excellence.

As with many groups of judges, some arguing and compromising went on to come up with the five finalists and the winner: Sarasota.

Is this more targeted upscale approach the future of magazines? The key word may be targeted. To survive, does print have to narrow its focus? In the case of magazines does that mean going more affluent? And does that mean less real journalism?

At the Washingtonian, we always battled that kind of upscale competition but we looked down on it. We did real journalism, our readers paid to get the magazine. The upscale magazines were controlled circulation, sent free to homes in affluent areas, and the editorial seemed mostly party pictures and puff pieces. Nothing to worry about, dear reader, just keep enjoying the good life.

Are those magazines now the future?

Maybe it’s not either/or. Maybe it’s a direction more magazines will have to take, as Memphis and Louisville seem to have done. More targeted, more upscale, but still some real journalism.
A second change: One of the better magazines in the competition had a cover, “The Faces and Places Issue.”  When you opened the magazine, you discovered the “Faces” part of it were four ad sections featuring “The Face of Community Banking” or “The Face of Fried Chicken” and so on with an advertiser the face. Those four ad sections made up 97 pages of the 196-page magazine.

A perfectly good way to sell ads—nice pictures, straightforward ad copy— but not something to be sold on the cover. That approach got a veto from some of the judges, knocking that magazine out of consideration. Too bad—in some ways that magazine had the best editorial of any of the magazines but the judges weren’t willing to allow that breach of ad-editorial separation on the cover.

In the interests of survival, is that traditional ad-edit separation going to be a luxury more magazines won’t be able to afford?

No easy answers—the five judges debated those questions and none of us were entirely happy with the result.

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