It’s challenging to tell a story in 900 words.
Nine hundred words is only about three pages double-spaced. It’s the number of words we were assigned for this piece — which we slightly exceeded, but will likely be trimmed down to by the editor. This isn’t a number that’s been pulled out of thin air — it’s a very informed amount that provides a glimpse into how print media works. It’s a number dictated by the editor’s plan and what they have in mind for this particular story and where it stands in relation to the other stories in this magazine. It’s a number that reflects the resources at the publication’s disposal, design limitations, and visual specifications. It’s a carefully chosen figure, one that can make telling a story in its entirety very hard — but this is the reality of print.
There are several tropes that plague discourse around modern media consumption, such as social media addiction, listicles, and the catch-all phrase that “print is dead.”
In the last few years, a common step for many longstanding print magazines has been to stop print production entirely. These shifts are usually hailed by critics as proof of a dying industry — but transitions to web may not necessarily be the death knell they are often perceived as.
AN EVOLVING INDUSTRY
The fact is, print isn’t dead — its impression as such is emblematic of wider evolution in the publishing industry.
The most profitable magazines today are tabloid weeklies, glossy fashion publications, and lifestyle magazines from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Owned by media conglomerates, publications such as these face fewer financial challenges than smaller-scale, niche products.
David Rose, a publisher from Lapham’s Quarterly, differentiates between the power of strong editorial design versus business make-up. After almost two decades of publishing experience, he argues that the opposite of what we may think is true: a magazine with low-quality content will sell if the business model works.
Despite these challenges, magazines like Hazlitt are inverting traditional standards with new editorial approaches. Hazlitt was founded on the notion that good writing can make anything interesting — even a dense finance story.
Haley Mlotek, editor of The Hairpin, is inclined to agree.
“I really think that if I chose the writers and the articles I believe in, if I publish articles I really believe people want to read, then I’ve done my job,” she says.
Mlotek admits that it’s not an exact science, adding, “My faith, if you want to call it that, lies primarily with the writing first.”
The publishing giant, Random House of Canada — now Penguin Random House — created Hazlitt as their digital space to showcase good writing on any and all topics. Random House is straddling the space between print and online, employing its traditional model of publishing in the web realm.
THE ELASTICITY OF DIGITAL
From a creative perspective, there are no technical boundaries to what you can publish online.
The internet comes equipped with hundreds of different platforms and tools designed to make using it easier. Sites such as WordPress, Tumblr, and Medium have opened up the act of publishing to pretty much anyone with a decent WiFi connection and valid email address. Articles have the potential to come alive with the addition of multimedia and interactive elements such as audiovisuals and infographics.
“Online, there are some things I can do that you can’t do in print, like publish really timely pieces or not worry so much about things like word count or page layout,” Mlotek explains, adding, “It’s more flexible to the writing.”
Digital content is also more universally accessible to readers. Physical magazines are only available in certain locations to those who can afford them. When we’re reading online, we don’t have to purchase an entire issue of The Atlantic just to read one feature — and, if we really like that one article, we can save it to revisit and share it on social media towards facilitating a conversation about it.
Print publications often cater to a target readership. When you’re a digital publication, however, you might have a target readership in mind — but if one article goes viral, your audience can dramatically expand in a matter of hours.
For print, the number of issues being produced and the amount and value of advertising space being sold are strong indicators of a magazine’s health — but measuring success online is more challenging.
There are a number of things that an editor can consider to gauge how well an article is doing, such as page views or the number of shares on social media.
Mlotek emphasizes that success in terms of page views doesn’t necessarily mean a positive public response, however. “I can think of a lot of articles published online that are technically successful because people ‘hate read’ them,” she explains.
“On the other hand, it’s really important to me that I see some reaction… I want to see what readers think about a piece, how they feel, what they like or don’t like,” she adds.
NOT DEAD YET
Rose argues that the reason print magazines fail is not due to poor quality, but merely lack of publishing expertise. Looking back to a decade ago, when the digital sphere was rapidly expanding, print publishing skills were often entirely cast aside to make way for their digital counterparts.
It is not uncommon for magazines to experience success online and then flounder when looking to expand into print — which Rose attributes to a lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of print, including balancing a budget, marketing strategically, and management.
Today the digital magazine industry is showcasing innovative editorial visions — and while the online model allows for complete creative freedom, it is the intersection with print that measures the resilience of these publications. The loss of each small, independent magazine is used as fodder for the growing idea in our minds that print is, in fact, dead. Print does, however, live on — in some cases with great success. The fork in the road between print, online, or both presents a choice for publications. The decision they make depends on their preparedness in tackling the medium, not on a flaw in the medium itself.