The real death of print

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by Steve Watson in April 2024
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For as long as I’ve worked in magazines there’s been an unfortunate rumour that their days are numbered. Egon Spengler probably wasn’t the first one to say it, but way back in 1984 the nerdiest Ghostbuster emerged from under Janine’s desk to declare, “print is dead”. And looking back over the last 40 years of circulation figures, it seems that maybe he was right. It would be impossible to name all the magazines that have died since then, and the ones that survive find themselves in an unprecedented media environment, so there’s no wonder people are just waiting for poor old print magazines to give up the ghost.

Except I know that’s not the full story, because I spend my days surrounded by beautiful, intelligent, independent magazines that are totally committed to print. And this isn’t just a story of plucky upstarts publishing from their bedrooms – there are lots of proper, professional magazine businesses that are not just holding on, but flourishing. But these success stories tend to be overshadowed by the wider narrative of decline, so if they do attract praise they do so almost as curiosities – strangely anachronistic print projects that somehow still exist in the digital age.

I don’t think that comes close to reflecting what’s really going on, so I decided to take a step back from the sort of reviews and interviews I normally post on the Stack blog and give myself time to think more broadly about the role of magazines today. And I kept coming back to the idea of print’s apparently inevitable death – in the shower, emptying the dishwasher or riding my bike, I’d end up turning it over and over in my head, wondering why ‘print is dead’ has proven so grimly enticing to so many people. I’ve come to believe that the phrase has sunk so deep into our collective imaginations that even the people who are actively involved in making print magazines today carry it with them in what they do; a self-fulfilling prophesy of print’s decline that shapes and often limits the ambitions of magazine makers.

This feels like a good time to be taking a longer look at print, because we’ve reached a turning point for digital media. For much of the last 20 years it’s been vaguely accepted that print is declining because digital is taking over, but the last few months have seen the fall of once-great digital titles like Vice and Pitchfork – and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. At the end of last year Mark Stenberg reported in his Medialyte newsletter that more than 20,000 jobs had been lost across the digital media industry, leading him to call 2023, “the worst year in digital media history”. I’m definitely not suggesting that print is somehow the solution to all those woes, but I do think it has a part to play in the search for a more sustainable media future.

A week or two after I read the Medialyte piece, I went to the National Art Library at the V&A Museum to read the first few issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine, the first printed thing that called itself a magazine. I’d heard about it before and I thought I was relatively familiar with it, but it wasn’t until I sat down to read the magazine itself that I realised how relevant it is to today. Its editor, Edward Cave, writing under the pseudonym Sylvanus Urban, seems to have been motivated by a desire to find the easiest, most enjoyable, most characterful way of communicating with his readers. That approach feels essentially ‘magazine-y’, and it’s still a huge part of what magazine editors spend their days doing. It’s ironic, but it was seeing the world’s oldest magazine that made me feel like I was missing something about contemporary publishing.

It’s worth noting at this point that I’m not a historian, or a media analyst, or really in any way qualified to do any of this. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about magazines, and I wanted to write this essay because too much is being lost in the current understanding of ‘print is dead’. It’s such a broad brush, and essentially meaningless too (of course print can’t be dead, because it was never alive in the first place). But it also shouldn’t just be disregarded – clearly something has happened here, and if we can figure out what that thing is, and what caused it, then we can start to understand which bit of print is actually dead, and which bits continue to live on. Looking for a place to start, I decided that I needed a way of thinking about the death of things that have never been alive in the first place, and that’s when I remembered the Copernican Principle.

Looking to the stars

Talking Politics was a brilliant podcast hosted by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University. I started listening in 2016, when the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign were dominating all news coverage and the fractious tone often spilled over into furious outrage. By comparison, Talking Politics was an oasis of calm; a place where well-informed academics and writers could come together to discuss some facet of politics, led by Runciman’s gentle, generous and insightful questions. (The show finished in 2022 and I was genuinely sad to see it go, but Runciman fans can now get their fix over at Past Present Future.)

Runciman occasionally switched format and instead of hosting a discussion he’d deliver a lecture, and it was on one of those episodes that he spoke about the Copernican Principle. As he tells it, in 1969 a young American physicist called Richard Gott travelled to Europe, and in the course of his trip he saw both Stonehenge and the Berlin Wall. Reflecting on the experience of seeing those world-famous sites, he wondered whether he would outlive either of them, and decided it would be unusual if he outlived Stonehenge, because the structure has been there for around 4,000 years. But at that point the Berlin Wall had only existed for eight years, so he thought he might live to see the day when it fell. Sure enough, 20 years later, the wall came down.

Inspired by that experience, he wanted to see if he could find a way of predicting how long something would exist for, based on how long it had already been around. So in 1993 he took a random day on Broadway to see if he could guess how long a show would run, based on how long it had already been on. His hypothesis was that if you take a random show that has only been on for a few weeks, it’s unlikely to have years left to run, because then you’d have met it right at the start of its life. And similarly, it’s unlikely that a show that has been around for years would only have a few weeks left to run, because then you’d have met it right at the end of its life.

Gott called it the Copernican Principle because he was inspired by the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, the Renaissance astronomer who first theorised that we’re not at the centre of the universe, with the sun and stars all revolving around us. We humans tend to think we’re special, and that we’re living in exceptional times, but Gott’s realisation was that for the most part we’re not special at all, so most of the time, instead of existing in some dramatic moment right at the start or end of an era, we’re actually just floating around somewhere in the middle. That’s why Gott was unlikely to see the fall of Stonehenge after it had existed for thousands of years. But when he saw the Berlin Wall he was there eight years into its 28-year existence, so comfortably around a third of the way through its life.

In the episode, Runciman applies the principle to democracy, attempting to work out how long it’s likely to have as a form of government around the world. To do so he breaks it down into three distinct versions of democracy:

There’s the long story, which is around 2,500 years old, dating back to ancient Athens and the idea of democracy based on the principle that human beings are equal to one another, and collectively able to control their own fate. Then there’s the middle story, which is around 250 years old, dating to the emergence of representative democracy, when people first chose their leaders from a small group of ‘professional’ politicians. And there’s the short story, which is at most 100 years old, and defined as the version of democracy where women as well as men get the vote, and political parties use mass communication to sell their ideas to the electorate.

He points out that the US, for example, has had middle-story democracy for a long time, and short-story democracy for less time. People there might be getting frustrated with the type of democracy they have now, he says, but the broader institution is so well established that it would be unlikely for us to see the end of democracy in the US in our lifetimes. Whereas a country like Hungary adopted the middle- and short-term versions of democracy at the same time, and really not very long ago. That makes Hungarian democracy much more vulnerable, and indeed, last year The Economist Intelligence Unit rated Hungary a ‘flawed democracy’, the fourth-lowest rated in the EU.

It’s important to point out that the Copernican Principle is not a crystal ball – David Runciman doesn’t claim that he can predict when democracy will give way to another form of government in any given country, but instead he uses it to assess the probability of whether the transition will happen within his lifetime. He says in the episode that the principle is a good way of estimating the likely lifespan of any thing that’s not actually alive, for example corporations, or even the human race itself (that bit is kind of terrifying). And I found myself wondering whether I could apply the same structure to the death of print.

The long story

Just as Runciman started by defining his different ideas of what democracy is, I began by sketching out my own versions of what people mean when they talk about print. And like him, I came up with a long story, a medium story, and a short story.

The long story goes back around 570 years to Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of movable type in Europe. (It dates back further than that in Asia, but for the purposes of this essay I’m going to focus on Europe and the UK, just to simplify things a bit.) Ink on paper has literally shaped the world we live in, democratising knowledge and making it possible for men and women to understand the world around them, and there’s no doubt that print is very well integrated into our lives. Virtually everyone knows how a printed page works – that may sound obvious, but one of the major problems faced by the makers of iPad editions of magazines was the lack of any single navigation system, which created a confusing, obstructive reading experience. (Remember the Jason Schwartzmann video instructions for how to read the New Yorker iPad app?)

But just because print has been around for a long time, that doesn’t mean it always will be. In his recent book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, Jeff Jarvis makes a compelling case for us having reached the end of the print era. He argues that before printing, “stories and information were passed along mouth-to-mouth by family, friend, traveller, town crier, and balladeer. News, rumour, verse, and song would evolve along the way… There was little sense of authorship or ownership of information or tale.”

That changed with the advent of printing, when, “knowledge came to be bound in covers, with a beginning and an end… Then writing, text, and creativity were seen as products and property: a commodity we call content. Content is that which fills the container, the book. Society no longer conversed so much as consumed.” But, he says, the arrival of the internet has closed the parenthesis, returning us to the state we were in before print: “Today, as the world moves past the Gutenberg era, knowledge is again passed along freely, link by link, click by click, remixed and remade along the way.”

It’s a fascinating read, ambitious and far-sighted, proclaiming nothing less than a new era of human existence. But Jarvis is clear that none of this is going to happen quickly, and he points out that while Gutenberg began printing his bible around 1450, it wasn’t finished until 1454, and for the first 50 years, print was used to mimic the work produced by scribes. He says it wasn’t until around 1500 that the ‘book’ as we know it today emerged, with title pages, page numbers and indexes. And it wasn’t until 1570 that Michel de Montaigne began publishing the first essays; it was 1605 before Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, the first modern novel; and it was in 1710 that copyright law came into being in England, creating an economic model for the print industry.

If it took 120 years before somebody came up with a style of writing that would become synonymous with what we know today as print, and 260 years before somebody else came up with a way of making money from it, then it’s not surprising that after a little more than 20 years, we’re still waiting for the form of writing that is totally made for the internet. Seen in this context, it’s entirely unsurprising that the internet, as it exists today, is just not good enough to have killed print; it absolutely has changed the way we live our lives, but as yet it hasn’t delivered a revolutionary new way of reading and writing that is entirely its own.

Jarvis is confident that it will happen one day, though, he warns, “it could take a very, very long time”. Even if that does happen, I’m still not sure that print would be killed off by digital technology. Just as print wasn’t replaced by radio, and radio by television, it seems there’s a good chance that the different media would find a way to exist alongside one another, albeit within slightly different contexts. Returning to Richard Gott’s thoughts about visiting Stonehenge, then, it would be really surprising if we were living at the end of the long story of print, the moment when, after more than half a millennium, mankind gives up on ink on paper altogether.

The middle story

But I’m more interested in the death of print as it applies to magazines, which brings me to the middle story. The Gentleman’s Magazine was first published in London in 1731, and promised to help readers stay abreast of the funniest, most interesting things happening across the country and beyond. Or as they put it, “to Give Monthly a View of all the Pieces of Wit, Humour, or Intelligence, daily offered to the Publick in the News-Papers, (which of late are so multiply’d, as to render it impossible, unless a Man makes it a Business, to consult them all)”.

Edward Cave began by taking pieces that had been published elsewhere and he printed short excerpts, summaries and commentaries on them, breaking the information down into bite-size chunks, “to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces on the Subjects above mentioned”. In this sense the word ‘magazine’ draws upon its military connotation as the place where weapons are stored, so Cave was effectively promising to arm his readers with funny and useful bits of information that they could use to amuse and impress in conversation.

The idea of the magazine as a printed guide giving a useful and entertaining view of the world was copied almost immediately, establishing a new medium that spread quickly. The Gentleman’s Magazine was extremely successful, publishing for nearly 200 years before finally coming to an end in 1922, but in its early days it was created for a small, elite readership and its pages look more like they come from a book than anything we’d now understand as a magazine. So while it might be the world’s first magazine in name, it really was just the beginning.

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that a more familiar form of magazine publishing emerged, driven by a series of technological innovations and catalysed by social change. Until that point, printing had continued to follow Gutenberg’s model, with individual pieces of metal type painstakingly arranged in a ‘forme’ that could be printed from, before the whole thing was taken apart so the type could be cleaned and used to make the next page. But the advent of mechanical typesetting made the process much quicker, allowing entire lines of text (known as slugs) to be created from molten lead, which were then cooled and added to the previous lines and used to print, before the lead was melted down to be used again.

Similarly, steam-powered web-fed rotary presses used huge rolls of paper rather than individual sheets – the rolls could be printed on both sides at once, rushing through the machinery to produce more copies more quickly than ever before. The paper itself was cheaper, made from wood pulp rather than rags, which had become expensive as demand increased. And the halftone printing process converted photographs and illustrations into dots of ink, allowing them to be printed alongside text, and giving publishers more flexibility in the layout of their pages.

Meanwhile, the 1870 Education Act made it compulsory that all children in England and Wales aged between five and 12 had to go to school, creating a whole new market of working-class readers. By that point the railways had made it possible for magazines to be distributed across Britain, giving a truly national audience, and newsagents sprang up in towns and cities to supply readers with the new cheap, attention-grabbing, popular journalism.

One of the first titles to address that audience directly was Tit-Bits, launched by publisher George Newnes in 1881, and built, like The Gentleman’s Magazine before it, on taking pieces of news and information that had been published elsewhere, and repackaging it to give readers an easier, more entertaining reading experience. Tit-Bits also inspired many imitators, and played a major role in establishing this new form of journalism for working-class readers, not just in magazines but also in newspapers like the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Express, all of which were launched by men who had worked on Tit-Bits. And of course Newnes wasn’t about to forget his middle-class readers, also launching The Strand in 1891, the magazine that first published Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

The middle story, then, is around 150 years old, and takes us to a time when print magazines reached out beyond a small elite and found a mass market. Returning to Gott’s insight, and thinking purely in terms of time, it’s not too difficult to imagine a product that has been around for 150 years dying within my lifetime – plenty of 19th-century inventions have been superseded and are no longer used now. But if we add a bit more context, I think we’ll see that would be unlikely for print.

For example, James A. Bonsack was granted a US patent for his cigarette-making machine in 1880, which was then exported around the world. Even 20 years ago cigarettes were ubiquitous here in Britain, whereas today they’re either banned or frowned upon pretty much everywhere I go, so I’d say it looks fairly certain that old-fashioned, mass-produced cigarettes will disappear from British shops at some point in the next 40 years.

That’s partly because they’re being legislated out of existence, with high taxes making them more expensive, and non-smoking areas extending, and just this week MPs approved Rishi Sunak’s plans to raise the age for legal cigarette sales. The new law would mean that if you were born in or after 2009 it will never be legal for you to buy cigarettes in the UK. But even with all those legislative obstacles, there would be way more cigarettes still being smoked if vaping hadn’t come along and provided a newer, (probably) healthier way of getting a hit of nicotine.

So how does all that relate to magazines? It’s extremely unlikely that magazines will be voted out of existence by politicians, but they do face stiff competition from a major threat: Take a look around any bus, train or tube carriage and you’ll see hordes of people staring intently at their phones – the reality is that these days lots of people don’t even think about picking up a magazine because they know they’ve got plenty to read, play or do on their phones. So continuing the comparison, our phones could be thought of as something like vapes; a relatively new invention perfectly designed to deliver quick, convenient, cheap, and addictive hits of media to our brains.

The backlash against mobile phones is building, though, with more people actively trying to avoid the addictive little drips of dopamine they provide. And if you want to read something more slowly, in a more considered way, delivered on a page that has been thoughtfully designed, in a format that can be kept and archived afterwards, suddenly print seems like a good choice for a healthier, more deliberate approach to media. We’re in the early days of this awareness about the harmful effects of phones, but it’s growing, and as behaviours change, I think more people will realise the benefits of reading in a more focused and intentional way. That’s why I think it’s unlikely that this middle story of magazines will end in my lifetime; there’s still a huge potential audience of readers who will sometimes want to read in print, and as we get better at managing the way we use our phones, I think there’s a good chance that audience will grow again.

The short story

As I said at the start, there are still lots of magazines out there, just waiting for readers to find them, but part of the problem with magazines today is that they’re stuck in the shadow of the 20th century’s publishing giants. That’s a problem for small independents, but it applies to more mainstream titles too, for example Private Eye sells more copies now than it did in the early 2000s, bucking the trend of decline. But they’re still so much smaller than the print behemoths of the last century that they somehow seem fringe and unimportant in comparison, which ends up reading as another signal pointing to the death of print.

Looking for a short story that brings us closer to the current day, I once again found myself turning to a technological change that was catalysed by a social change, and ended up digging into the colourful glossy magazines that revolutionised magazine publishing from the mid 1950s onwards. Photogravure printing had been used for producing colour pages from the early 20th century, but it was expensive to set up, with images etched into the printing surface, which limited its use. Looking for a cheaper way to print in colour, printers began working with offset lithography, in which the image is formed using chemicals that either attract or repel ink, before being ‘offset’ from the metal printing plate onto a rubber surface, and then transferred to the paper.

The technology apparently dates back to 1901, when Ira Washington Rubel, a printer in New Jersey, forgot to load a sheet of paper into his machine. He accidentally printed onto the rubber roller, but found the resulting image was clearer than printing directly from the metal plate. Offset lithography became known for clear, sharp, consistent image reproduction that was more economical on smaller runs, and in the 1960s it transformed the publishing industry, providing a fast, cheap way to print colourful glossies.

This was the age of Mad Men, and the emerging advertising industry needed places where its adverts could appear. The rich, colourful pages of magazines proved to be a perfect home for advertising, and a period of rapid growth began, with new titles launching to tap into specific demographics that advertisers wanted to reach. The explosion in advertising-driven magazines in the UK can be seen today via the membership of the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which had been established in 1931 as an independent body checking on the numbers of magazines printed and circulated. It was a way of reassuring advertisers that their pages were actually being seen, and while similar organisations already existed in the US and Europe, British magazine publishers proved reticent at first.

Britain’s local and national newspaper publishers didn’t share the same concerns and joined early on, but by 1940 only 29 magazine publishers had signed up. The Second World War posed a massive challenge to Britain’s magazine publishers, with paper rationing and reduced spending across the board, and by 1950 127 magazines had come around to the necessity of the ABC. By 1960 that number had more than doubled to reach 345; by 1970 it was 437; and then the figure more than doubled again to hit 915 by 1980 . Membership peaked in 2000 at 1,453, before the fall began, and in 2010 it registered 1,127 members, and by 2020 the number was down to 467.

Those numbers tell their own story of these colourful, aspirational magazines, which were created to carry lucrative advertising to their readers, and which grew rapidly from the 1950s, before declining even more quickly from some point after 2000. Returning to Richard Gott’s theory, I find it much easier to believe that this particular type of magazines (mass-produced, glossy, aspirational, built to connect advertisers with a specific target audience) might disappear in my lifetime. The chances of that happening in the UK significantly increased last summer, when the German-owned, Liverpool-based printer Prinovis closed, citing “significant decline” in the UK magazine market and the increasing cost of paper. That closure means there’s now just one large-scale printer left in the UK, the Bicester-based Walstead. Since last summer it has had an effective monopoly on the British market, which seems like it can’t be good for encouraging quality and value, and of course it puts a huge amount of pressure on the one remaining operation.

To be clear, none of this is to say that advertising in magazines is bad – it has been around for a very long time (issues of The Gentleman’s Magazine came in a wrapper with adverts printed on the outside), and good advertising pages can both help to pay for a magazine and also assert its identity. Rather, I think the thing that has died here is the business model of the glossy magazines that emerged around 60 years ago, burned brightly for a few decades and which are now smouldering out.

And I don’t think there’s a way back for them. Because while the growth of the mass-market magazines in the late 19th century was driven by the emergence of a whole new reading public, the growth of the glossy magazines in the 20th century was driven by the parallel growth of the advertising industry. Those late 20th-century glossies made some money from cover sales, but their real aim was to convince advertisers that they could provide access to a specific group of readers – if they did that, they got paid. That means it was in their interest to inflate the numbers of people reading the magazines, so it’s possible that, even with the Audit Bureau of Circulations keeping tabs on things, maybe those readers were never really there in the first place, or at least not in the sort of numbers that were promised. And it’s absolutely certain that since the arrival of the internet, that business model has vanished.

Almost overnight, advertising became smarter and more targeted, and print just couldn’t keep up with digital, while at the same time new platforms emerged to compete for readers’ time and attention. The result was a vicious cycle of falling advertising revenues and falling reader numbers, and as the publishers struggled to survive they did things like cutting pagination, and switching to lighter paper, and they ended up devaluing their printed product in an inglorious race to the bottom.

The afterlife

It’s not surprising, then, that as the big, glossy magazines have declined over the last 20 years and so many once-great titles have either closed or scaled back, the received wisdom has said that print is dead. And, we were told, that might be bad news for the magazine publishers, but it’s not something the reading public would need to worry about, because while print magazines were disappearing, they were being replaced by something else; a newer, faster, less hierarchical form of journalism that would allow for more voices and more points of view than ever before. And that’s sort of what has happened – I wrote this because I’m able to just start typing into WordPress, and at some point I’ll publish it and hope that with our newsletter and podcast and socials I can put it in front of people and some of them will read it. (Or listen.)

But I’m not being paid to write this, and honestly, I’m not sure where I’d go these days to even try to get paid for writing about the death of print, or magazines, or the media in general. That’s kind of okay, because I’m hoping that some of the people who come across this essay might try subscribing to Stack so they can see some of the great print magazines that are flourishing now beyond the so-called death of print. (Check the ‘Subscribe’ tab above and you can scroll through 16 years worth of our monthly deliveries…) But that’s clearly not a reliable way to get paid, and it’s indicative of the fact that after the internet came along and trampled the magazine publishing industry’s business model, a new structure for sustainable journalism has stubbornly failed to appear.

I’m not going to pretend that I understand everything happening in digital media, but one of the main problems is that so few people are prepared to pay for what they read online. In the early days of the internet we were told that ‘content wants to be free’, so publishers released their stories into the world alongside advertising, which paid the bills. We know what happened next – the massive over-supply of content meant the value of the ads went down, so the tracking technologies became ever more invasive and so did the positioning of the adverts, until the internet became jam packed with MPUs, banners and pop-ups that you have to battle past in an effort to read what you came for.

That worked well enough for Google and the companies running the ads, but less so for the publishers, who found themselves desperately chasing users in an attempt to make money from their depreciating ad space. As confidence fell, the investors who had funded this search for the media of the future decided they wanted to get some of their money back, which is why we’ve seen once-huge titles like Vice having to declare bankruptcy, while others have either closed or been sold to new owners who definitely don’t seem interested in the challenge of funding quality journalism.

In amongst the chaos, though, there are reasons to be hopeful, as small independents try to figure out a stronger, more sustainable way of running a journalism business online. Sites like Hell Gate, 404 Media and Defector are worker-run organisations that have been built out of the wreckage of other media businesses, and all of them focus on providing high-quality reporting and encouraging readers to pay for it. And that’s where I see a similarity with the independent magazine world, where many titles are either too small to take an advertiser’s money, or too worried about what advertiser involvement would do to their independence. All those magazines, even the ones that take money from advertisers, are also charging their readers, and often fairly substantial amounts – these days £15 per copy is common, and cover prices can go much higher.

That’s not to say independent magazine publishers are raking in the cash – far from it. But I think that’s where these new, progressive, digital journalism sites can be an inspiration to independent magazines in the way they’re so boldly setting out to find financial sustainability. All independent magazines run on passion rather than profit, and that’s one of the reasons why I love them: If you’re publishing a magazine with no expectation of getting paid for it, that probably means you really care about it, and that’s an excellent filter for producing interesting, exciting, ambitious magazines. But it also means that often magazines are published with no thought for how they could make money, because that’s impossible, because print is dead, right? In that context, print becomes a playground where people can try out creative ideas, freed from the expectation that they should somehow be able to make money, but it also becomes something that’s done in spare time, fitting in around a job that actually pays the bills.

I really want those totally un-commercial magazines to continue because they’re brilliant and I love them. But I’d also love to see more confidently commercial magazines making it into the world too, using great writing and beautiful design to build a strong relationship with readers and charging them for a quality editorial product. Several independent magazines are doing that now, but it feels like there’s an opportunity for lots of others to do the same, if there was the basic expectation that running a magazine could also be a sensible business.

Because in many ways, there has never been a better time to publish independent magazines. The simple, page flipping user interface of a print magazine is just as deeply embedded in our culture as it has ever been, and if anything it has taken on an extra level of value specifically because it’s not on a screen. People today talk about turning to print as a break from looking at screens, which they have come to associate with work, especially since the pandemic when so much of our working lives moved online.

And independent magazines today also enjoy several advantages over their forebears. For example, the old, 20th-century mainstream way of publishing magazines tended to be quite geographically based, because advertisers wanted to reach a specific type of reader in a specific place. But the independent magazine world is much more international, based on interests and attitudes rather than geographical regions, so now a publisher making a second-hand fashion magazine in Mexico, for example, can expect to sell the magazine to second-hand fashion lovers all around the world.

And the continuing evolution of print technology means that publishers can now choose from many more options than ever before. The zines of the 70s and 80s were made on photocopiers because that was the technology available to their publishers, but now digital printing means it’s economically viable to print extremely small runs, producing professional quality results for just a few copies. That would never have been possible previously, when printing meant the expense of making up plates to print from, but today’s digital printers are like a massive version of your home printer, squirting ink onto paper to produce pages. Similarly, companies like Newspaper Club provide access to both digital and web offset printers, allowing users to print just one copy or hundreds of thousands of copies of their own newsprint magazine or newspaper. And dedicated risograph studios, letterpress printers and others are using their craft to produce distinctive publications, all of which is giving voice to a huge range of perspectives from many different backgrounds.

I’m not blind to the challenges facing magazines. The rising cost of paper has made it even harder for publishers to turn a profit, and the closure of newsstands and the general chaos that is magazine distribution makes the job even harder. But magazines have evolved over the last 300 years to serve the specific purpose of telling stories in text and images in the easiest, friendliest, most compelling way possible, and that core function is as relevant now as it has ever been. There’s a lot of noise online and with AI-created content adding to the clamour, I think the considered, human environment of the printed magazine is going to look ever more attractive.

We’re not going to see a return to the days of the magazine giants, but what we have instead is a more diverse, more experimental, more exciting publishing landscape, and as we get further away from the 20th century’s mass-produced glossies, I think we’ll see that print has a major part to play in the way we all experience the world.

Thanks to Nikita Bürger, pictured wearing Punk = Dead t-shirt from Nachladen, photographed at Indiecon 2023

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