American Society of Magazine Editors

What Is a Magazine Now?

 

Photos from the ASME Annual Meeting

 

 

What Is a Magazine Now?
 

ASME Annual Meeting
3 West Club, New York City
April 30, 2014

Moderator:
Josh Tyrangiel, Senior Executive Editor for Consumer Products, Bloomberg LP

Panelists:
Dana Points, Content Director, Meredith Parents Network
Adam Moss, Editor in Chief, New York
Ben Smith, Editor in Chief, BuzzFeed
 

Download transcription here

At the ASME Annual Meeting, top editors tried to define “magazine,” circa 2014. The panel agreed that what makes a magazine today is not a cover, a beginning and an end or even editorial control but the editor’s point of view--the voice of the brand. Still, they couldn’t answer every question—like what to do about video. Read on to see what these industry leaders had to say about the state of the magazine.

JOSH TYRANGIEL: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Women’s National Republican Club, my home away from home [laughs]. When they give you a panel with a question mark at the end of a topic, it makes a moderator’s first question very easy. So, I will start now. Adam, what is a magazine now?

ADAM MOSS: Josh, you know, I think a magazine is whatever you want to call a magazine. There’s no other way to define it. I used to be on the board of [ASME], and we spent a lot of time thinking about this, and we had all of these standards for the editor’s role in controlling the content and the creation of an environment that you were sort of forcing the reader to confront. And all that stuff doesn’t make sense anymore. So, if you want to call yourself a magazine, no matter what you do, it’s okay with me.

DANA POINTS: I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I do think that there are going to be things that distinguish magazines from other forms of media, and that dreaded C-word is a part of it. There’s someone, or a group of someones, who—curation—

TYRANGIEL: Oh, I did not know what dreaded C-word you were talking about.

POINTS: Your mind just goes there! Curation. Something specific to an audience, to a target audience. But in terms of platforms, whatever—choose your poison.

TYRANGIEL: So, Ben, you’re the natural third person for this, because one of the ways that I would define a magazine is that it has an end. You have no end, as best as I can tell. Would you agree with that as a defining principle? And if not, how do you overcome it? And why do you still call yourself a magazine?

BEN SMITH: Do we call ourselves a magazine?

TYRANGIEL: I don’t know. Adam said you could!

SMITH: Oh, okay, we could. BuzzFeed magazine. We actually started doing covers for a minute, because covers are such a great form, but without any inside. Or any printing. You know, I came out of newspaperland, and this is not a question to which I’ve given a lot of systematic thought, although for me the way in which I think about magazines in the editing process, and particularly in the story editing process, is a very specific, in some ways a ritualized but incredibly strong process. And the guy who runs our features, our features director, Steve Kandell, who had been the editor in chief of Spin, and brought that in. It was different than the newspaper feature process, and maybe both can produce great stories, but [magazine feature editing is] also very valuable for writers for whom it is the right process. It’s very, very painstaking and slow with a very strong editor, but also an editor that’s kind of a very good psychologist and manager of his writers’ panic attacks and things like that, which isn’t the newspaper culture at all. There are elements of that process that we certainly have really tried hard to import.  

TYRANGIEL: I want to actually flip it around, because I have been to numerous meetings in which we discuss definitions of a magazine based on editors’ contributions. Do readers think about that?

MOSS: On the platform, if you will, I think readers of a print magazine, yes. They’re all in, in the print magazine. That’s why they’re reading it. They like it, they like the cover, they like the actual finite amount of space and that you have to control the space. They like the controlled environment and like to be relatively passive readers of it. So, for them, they buy totally into magazines. We call—I call—everything we do “magazines.” Basically because I don’t like any other word, but it doesn’t have that much meaning. And in that sense, really, mostly no, in the digital space. I think maybe people who come to a homepage have a more magazine-like relationship to that kind of content. But that’s not the way most people get our content anyways. They find it themselves, they get linked to it, and they find it off Twitter or all the other numerous ways. They may not even know that what they’re reading was part of your magazine, and for them the magazine-ness of it is completely irrelevant. It’s just a piece of content they’re interested in or not, and that’s that. So, you’re dealing with . . . there’s a certain magazine-ness that I think is relevant when creating the content, it’s just helpful to have a point of view that you inflect everything you do with, and really maybe that’s all it is, is a point of view, and that’s what’s common among all the pieces of content you create. But for the readers, I don’t think that mostly matters.

POINTS: I was thinking last night that I use Zite to read. That’s curated content because it’s curated according to my desires.  It’s like my magazine that I sort of programmed for myself, but it’s a very different experience of reading than reading a magazine like New York, where Adam and his team have curated it for me. There’s an architecture to the magazine that sometimes doesn’t exist when you come on content in a social space, when you’re not going to that homepage and seeing the categories and whatnot. I would also challenge us to think about the visual aspect of it. Zite is not the best visual experience for me and for my brand right now. So how important is it that there are photographs or geometry or something that signals someone’s eye has been on this?

TYRANGIEL: Ben, BuzzFeed has created a sensibility to some degree, use of gifs and all that stuff. Do you, in your abundant data on your readers, do you even ask them what they think they’re reading? Or is that just a complete—

SMITH: I don’t think that’s a question we’ve ever asked anybody. How do you say “gifs”? I feel like that’s like saying “Mehico.” What magazines mean to me in a purely internet world is, we take ourselves fairly seriously and expect you to also, for better or for worse. You should expect us to have invested a certain amount of time and craft into this, and we expect you to take it very seriously. How do you know which story to read? With a magazine, we’re taking ourselves a little more seriously.

TYRANGIEL: I want to return to the endpoint idea, which is, at least for me, I still get some kind of endorphin kick when I can take the magazine and say, “AHA! I am done with you now!” That I feel like a task has been completed.

MOSS: As a reader or as an editor?

TYRANGIEL: Both, honestly. But specifically, as a reader, when you get . . . we all know the magazines pile up, but I feel like I have not just accomplished something from a purely task-oriented place, but I’m good, I’m set. Do you sense among your readers now that that is a priority? Do you think that they’re overwhelmed without these finite points?

POINTS: I have absolute data that shows our user, the millennial mom, so 18 to 34, is using more content sources and spending more time with content than she did two years ago, three years ago and five years ago. So, she has to be overwhelmed. I mean, I’m reading all that stuff, too, and I don’t see how any of us keep up with it. So, yeah, I think there is something nice about that endpoint. And also, back to what I said about architecture, architecture gives you an end. It gives you a last page, a signature page. I don’t know how we translate that online.

MOSS: I think we have to talk about multiplicity of desire here, because certain people do want an endpoint. Most of the content we create—and we create an enormous amount of content—the reader gets to choose. So the reader likes being in control. The reader likes being in the driver’s seat, and when they feel sated, they stop. As an editor, it’s like, yeah, overwhelming. But as a reader, I like going down rabbit holes. Like if there’s something I’m extremely interested in, I’ll keep following and following and following links until I’ve wasted enough time. My most recent rabbit hole was, you know, yesterday I was reading about coal emissions, sorry to say, and going down a little rabbit hole on that. But we were talking about doing something on this whole Brian Singer business, and I was reading the very good story that BuzzFeed did on that, and that was taking me to all sorts of places and stuff that was credible, stuff that was not credible. I was assembling a story in my own head as I was reading this stuff. That was very satisfying. It would also be satisfying to read the 10,000-word Vanity Fair story, that I’m sure I will read, where someone is actually in control of the whole thing and they’re deciding what to put in it and what not to put in it, and that’s cool, too.

SMITH: Obviously, I really like reading print magazines, but also I think that the experience you’re growing up with reading now is an infinite bottomless scroll. And I don’t think the people who grew up with that are saying, “I miss the days of the magazine.” It’s a different generation experience. And there’s just better stuff than there used to be.

TYRANGIEL: It’s the greatest moment in human history to be well informed, as well as the greatest moment in human history to be poorly informed. And apropos of that, since we are all on the supply side of information, do you think we’ve reached peak content making? Because so much of it over the past few years has been predicated on these alternate engines, one being search, the other social and dark social. And it does remind me, as someone who is cranking out with a team of a lot of people probably hundreds of thousands of words a day, that it’s almost like the old adage that 50 percent of advertising works, we just don’t know which 50 percent. And even with all the data, do you guys feel like, “Man, I thought that would hit.” And it didn’t? And where does that take us in the next few years?

MOSS: Oh, that happens all the time. But that’s why you do a hundred thousand words of content, is because basically it’s just like television. You’re just like throwing this stuff out and seeing what hits. And obviously there are predictors and certain things that worked for you before and you just have an instinct that this is a thing readers are going to be interested in, but we’re surprised all the time. I don’t know, I am. Are you guys surprised all the time?

POINTS: Yeah.

SMITH: Yeah, you develop rules of thumb, but if you get too good at that, you produce cookie-cutter boring stuff and nobody wants that. Novelty is so important that when you think you’ve figured out the code, it changes.

MOSS: I can’t even imagine that you’ve reached peak content. I mean, because it’s not a hundred thousand words of content for any single individual. It’s a hundred thousand words of content for a gazillion people who are taking a thousand words of that content that they’re interested in.

TYRANGIEL: I guess I was more personalizing that question. Have you reached peak content for what you can actually oversee?

MOSS: Oh, definitely [laughs].

SMITH: But what is this word, “oversee”?

TYRANGIEL: I think it’s crucial to maintaining some sort of credibility about who you are. On a daily basis, I think probably all of us are generating more words than are in a daily print New York Times if you consider everything we’re doing. Not to mention video, not to mention magazines being ported over onto the web. Is that a problem for you? Does it change the satisfaction of the job?

MOSS: It changes how you do the job. You have to delegate like crazy and trust the people you’re delegating to. And if you’re a control freak like me, then you’re having a crisis everyday of seeing something that you don’t necessarily want. But you have to go with it . . .

POINTS: You’re not delegating to your employees—you’re delegating to your users.

MOSS: And I’m willing to delegate to the users [laughs].

POINTS: Yeah, yeah, me too! You have to be able to let it go.

TYRANGIEL: I hope your magazine employees are in the room. Ben, what about you? Based on the model that you have, there is so much stuff going on, and I’ve always wondered, your title, editor in chief . . . how much are you seeing, reading and how much do you never get to catch up with, even after the fact?

SMITH: I mean, I think we’re publishing between 300 to 400 things a day, so I’m not reading them all. But I’m reading a lot. But I do think, what Adam said—it’s so important to have very, very, very strong leaders of teams who you trust. Whether it’s your foreign editor or the person running the quiz stuff, they have to be amazing. And things are so decentralized. These kinds of decisions, at newspapers and magazines, there’s a very important set of decisions made around allocating the limited resources of space, and when you take that out of the equation—like, you don’t have the foreign editor arguing with the national editor about which stories should be in A1—they just both publish the stories and you see which one people want to read.

TYRANGIEL: When the local guys just can’t get a story on the front page, it’s just so sad.

POINTS: But you are still allocating your head count, you’re allocating your budget—you’re just making sure you’re deciding which channel is going to get the money. That’s where your scarcity—

SMITH: Yes, absolutely.

TYRANGIEL: So as we travel further from the print magazine portion of this conversation, I want to address the hot word in every business office of every publication, which is video. Everybody is now demanding video from the advertising side, maybe not as much from the user side, but I was wondering how that fits into what you guys are trying to accomplish with the sensibility of each of your titles.

MOSS: You know, I would say that for us, we’re clueless. Exactly what you just said is the unbelievable demand from advertisers. We make a lot of video that we like, we don’t make a lot of video that readers are interested in. And we keep trying new things, and I’m totally interested in this stuff. It gets my creative juices going in a way that haven’t been so energized in a long time. But we are so far from anything that feels like a solution, so, yeah, to me that’s the great frontier. I think whoever figures that out, for magazine or something, is going to be like William Paley. I think that’s a really very exciting thing, but I think that’s in the future. Obviously some videos work but most publications have not figured this out.

SMITH: I actually think that we’re the publication that has figured it out, but all I know is what I don’t know, which is basically everything about video. I’ve spent a lot of time in previous roles, participating in video, and in that particularly boring genre where you point a camera at a reporter and they read their story aloud. Which is a great service to the illiterate . . . I mean, I don’t know what that’s for. I think there’s this web video culture that’s very distinct, that grew up on its own, pre-YouTube, and is totally distinct from video and film. And if you bring people from TV and film, it’s a real handicap. And so we brought on one of these guys, Ze Frank, who is a legend of that world and is very focused on creating totally new formats from scratch, and I think we hit somewhere in the ballpark of a billion views to our videos over the last year. And they’re very interesting and unfamiliar if what you’re used to is film and TV.

POINTS: I have to say, I have a very young audience, so we’ve been thinking about video for the Parents Network for several years now. We’ve been filming video, we’ve been filming very basic, not quite person-reading-script videos, but how-to video, because even three years ago, I was of the opinion that this audience wants to see how to do things in video. Because I’m the Parents editor, I have to use an example involving my children. I will give you the point at which I know that video was kind of the future. A year and a half ago, on a Sunday morning, I awakened to screams—there was a pet emergency, I won’t go into the details, but my 12-year-old found the pet in the problem situation, and to find the solution to the problem, he immediately, went to YouTube and I immediately went to Google. And that was the moment that I knew that for him, it was going to be a video-first environment. And he did solve the problem, and the pet survived. He’s buried in the backyard now, but different circumstances. So for that generation, it’s video. So my reader is a little bit older than that, and she’s watching how-to videos, and when we survey national samples, they want to get their basic information in video form. It’s more entertaining and what they’re used to.

TYRANGIEL: Yeah, I would say that we are somewhere between Ben and Adam, in the sense that very quietly over the past few years, Bloomberg has become the No. 1 digital video network for business in the world. And two years ago, we had zero inventory. Those successes are exactly what you think they are. It’s, “Would you like to see the world’s most expensive boat?” You probably do. At least the data indicates that you do. So we’re at this really interesting spot where we’re doing 40 million streams across all of our platforms, and it’s great. And we’re also sitting downstream of a television network. It’s a huge advantage, and the one thing we can’t figure out is, can we get anyone to watch anything that doesn’t have an expensive boat in it. Because there are only so many expensive boats. So that’s our challenge, just figuring out how to put something of a broader sensibility around it.

SMITH: Yeah, like, why do you feel that commodities’ prices should be transmitted into video form?

TYRANGIEL: Well, that we long ago decided not to do, because obviously they’re much more riveting in podcast form. But it’s a really interesting thing—can you untrain yourself from the question of importance? Because there are stories that we do as a magazine, as a news organization, where your journalists justifiably are saying, “I want people to see this. I want people to experience this. There’s something visceral about this”—and yet, I cannot get people to watch it. And it’s a very frustrating moment. I presume that at some point, someone is going to break through. I just don’t know who that’s going to be or when it’s going to happen.

SMITH: See, I’m not sure . . . I think we’ve been trained by a generation in which TV news was the most prestigious and central way that news was transmitted, that news should happen on video, but I guess I don’t really know why one should think that. It didn’t happen before that. There were thousands of years before when news didn’t happen on video, and now there are pipes that have the distribution capacity of TV news but without all the waiting for stuff and dumbed—down content and things you didn’t care about and massive flaws that the internet doesn’t have. So, I guess there’s this presumption that everything should move to video, and there are lots of things that should, like how to get your cat out of the toilet—

TYRANGIEL: Yeah, apropos of that, if you go back and look prior to the invention of CNN at a network newscast, there was actually very little video. It was a straight read. One more thing we can blame CNN for.

MOSS: Can you still look at most 24-hour news with people talking to the camera most of the time? It just seems like a really strange thing to want to replicate on the internet.

TYRANGIEL: I know that user-generated content is a bit of an old issue. But when you look at what some people are doing at this point, whether it’s Gawker in the way that it’s sort of brought its comments up, do you think it’s finally achieved a mature state in the content experience that people expect it and know what to do with it? Or are we still a little bit Wild West?

MOSS: Somewhere in between. I think it’s evolved, certainly, but it’s still frontier land, I think.

POINTS: A great mature state? No.

TYRANGIEL: Have you noticed, particularly with your users, where they’re interacting with resource material and how-to material, are they talking back more or offering better guidance, or are they just bickering with each other?

POINTS: Oh, no, they offer each other wonderful guidance. There’s bickering too, of course. It depends on the subject matter—

MOSS: They’re nicer to each other than . . . I think that’s a change that I have noticed, it’s not so much bickering and vicious attacks, it’s . . . they’re nicer, it’s more substance to the commentary. I think in general, the discourse is elevated. I’m not sure why, but I have noticed that. It’s pretty conspicuous, actually.

SMITH: Maybe we don’t talk about them as user-generated content, but Facebook is the place Americans are spending more time than any of our publications, and I think social media has matured and basically replaced the notion, with significant exceptions, basically replaced the idea that someone’s comment section is going to be where the real conversing happens. I think that parenting actually is an exception, where you can create a focused safe space where people want to talk to each other around very specific things. But R.I.P. political comments, thank God. The blog I had at Politico was the worst comment section on the internet. I begged for years just to turn it off. I think you don’t call it user-generated content anymore, you call it social media. But it’s become totally central.

TYRANGIEL: So, last question for you guys apropos of magazines, five years from now, is there still a National Magazine Award, or have we busted through that and into National Content Award? Adam, you have the most at stake here. I don’t know how you have any more room, but you’re going to actually have to take all those awards back to the engraver and get them retrofitted. So that’s like a year-long project.

MOSS: I dunno! How can you answer that question?  I mean, my feeling is that as the categories of National Magazine Awards have mutated, in my opinion, beyond comprehension [Shout from audience: “Oh, come on!”], that will continue to happen. And you’ll keep stuffing more things under the term “magazine,” because it’s convenient and it sounds nice and it means department store in French and all that good stuff. So it’s a very elastic term and, yeah, people will continue to use it because content is really where it is.

POINTS: I think there will be some type of award for great whatever it is we do. I dunno. I mean, I was talking with a colleague about how, to some extent, the word “magazine” is used when people want to elevate or gain respect or trust for whatever it is that they’re doing. So if we can have an award for great material, visual or print . . . I mean, we had podcasts in my [National Magazine Awards] category this year . . . that was a very interesting discussion. The idea that something that is completely audio in a category was really an interesting conversation.

TYRANGIEL: Did you enter anything this year?

SMITH: We did, although we were snubbed. But although as long as we’re considered for something—

POINTS: Raise your hand if you feel snubbed? [Laughter.]

TYRANGIEL: For whatever reason, we didn’t even get nominated in Best Video Boat category, so we got snubbed too. Thank you guys for doing this. Any questions?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. When you talked about content and you talked about magazines and people coming in laterally to your content, but in the examples that you gave, it’s brand too. There’s the power of brand, and Adam, in your unique position that you have expanded the content empire, and you’ve also created successful subbrand . . . so the question of creating more content, but at the same time maintaining brand, is that something that you—

MOSS:  Again, it depends on how people encounter it. If they’re coming in through the homepage, it is very helpful that they recognize it as Vulture. They’re coming to Vulture for a reason, because they like it and they’ll repeatedly go. And from a business point of view, those are your most valuable readers, and advertisers especially want loyalty. But basically, I think brand unity, if you must, is what’s useful in creating the content. Otherwise, we could do anything, but if we have a creation filter . . . it has to be a certain sensibility that can really help us. In fact, I would say it would be impossible to do it otherwise. I mean, we’re starting yet another vertical, or whatever you want to call it, on social science in another two weeks. And we are being very conscientious about making sure it feels like the rest of what we do. But also we think stuff is going to be more shared, so it’s more share-y in its orientation. But all of it is really just useful on the creation side. We’ll put this out there, the world will make of it . . . well, they’ll either be successful or they won’t . . . each individual piece will be successful or it won’t. Ultimately, in a business sense, it won’t matter. But in a creative sense, it will.

POINTS: I would just say that when I come to your website, I don’t think of coming to the magazine. I think of coming to New York, I think of coming to the brand. I would say the same thing for Parents.com.  I don’t think people are coming to Parents.com thinking, “Oh, that’s Parents magazine.” In fact, we kind of take pains to ensure that it is much broader and more multidimensional because there is no limit to what we can publish there. But the value of the brand trumps it all. So is it the magazine’s sensibility that helps you maintain or helps you be a steward of the brand?

MOSS: And helps you figure out what to publish.

POINTS: But even with audiences, you can’t think about your magazine’s audience. You have to think of the total brand audience.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is a slightly parallel, but slightly distinct question, but how important is voice, having a consistent voice, to being a magazine?

TYRANGIEL: I’ll take this one. I don’t know if we have a consistent voice. It’s a question that most frequently gets asked to me by marketing-side folks and business-side folks, but the voice is just the aggregate of your voices. And while you certainly can make some choices around where the parameters are, particularly around what’s being produced, there is just no way to legislate voice. So you just hope to hire smart people. You hope that they push in a single direction. You know that they will not. Some people are witty. Some people take great pains to write forward sentences. Some people don’t. So it goes back to the choices you make around what you’re going to write about as a group, rather than, “Hey, let’s remove those adjectives or backwards run those sentences.”

MOSS: I mean, that’s not true for us, we really care about voice a lot. We hire people who have the voice, or we train them to imitate each other to some extent. This is more down the line, because we just find that as a useful control, and we think that’s one of the reasons people read us. It’s not just for the information. It’s for the certain sensibility or sound or voice or a million words to describe the same thing.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m surprised listening to all of you talking about magazines, and the way you talk about it is, by definition, a print. What about the concept of magazine media? Because if you really think of what you’re talking about, it’s the dissemination of content of your brand across platform. So what about a world where National Magazine Awards were the National Magazine Media Awards?

MOSS: Isn’t that what it is? I mean, the word is “magazine,” but I—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: But when you say “magazine,” everyone here automatically thinks print. Everyone keeps talking about magazines as print vehicle, as opposed to magazine media, so isn’t it solved by magazine media as a dissemination of your brand, and that’s what a magazine is?

POINTS: But then, I guess, I would ask when you think about brands, consumer brands for example, that now have newsrooms that create content around their brands—is that a magazine? So what makes a magazine? We’re back to where we started, sorry! There is no print—actually, in some cases, they do have print—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I don’t think anybody has defined well what a magazine is, but for sure what you’re doing is magazine media across platforms.

TYRANGIEL: I think what you’re doing is summing us up while at the same time calling us a failure as a panel. Which, by the way, is totally fine. [Laughter.]

POINTS: Patti, can I put you on the spot? This is Patti Wolter from Northwestern University . . . if I can moderate for a moment . . . she had a good definition that she gives her students that she shared with me earlier.

PATTI WOLTER: I tell my students, over and over, that a magazine is curated content that is a community and leads in a certain approach and voice to a set of content that is always digital and sometimes has a print component that goes with it. And then we start talking about how you approach a story from a magazine point of view.

TYRANGIEL: Perfect. Well, that really does sum it up then.

Transcript edited for clarity.