Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither magazines?

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

Are you a magazine reader? I was once a big magazine reader and subscriber – Ms Magazine, the Smithsonian, Choice and Australian Gourmet were my favourites in the 1980s and 1990s. In more recent times, I’ve gravitated to local literary journals like Griffith Review, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings, but I tend not to subscribe to them. I pick and choose issues, when I feel I have time to read them. Some I buy in print form and some digital.

Australians have long had a reputation for being big magazine readers – but, things are changing, according to The Conversation (“From pig hunting to quilting: why magazines still matter”, by  and and the ABC (“Australian indie magazines thriving as big publications struggle”, by Emily Stewart). We are still big readers of magazines – though, hmmm, apparently the magazines with the biggest readerships are those produced by our two big supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths. They’re free, which probably helps. But, they don’t represent the main change that’s happening …

Well, actually, it seems that two significant changes are happening. One is the increase in specialised titles, in “niche-interest publications that range from trail bikes to organic gardening”. These magazines still come and go, says The Conversation, but they can survive because of the advertisers:

advertising to a niche rather than a mass audience still makes financial sense and allows these specialised magazines to survive.

Stewart, of the ABC, also reports that “niche titles [with their lower overheads, for a start] have room to thrive”. It’s not easy though. They have, she says, to “think outside the square with their distribution channels to reach their audience, and instead of only using newsagents, Lunch Lady is also available in boutique home wares stores and art galleries”. This seeking out of “niche” distribution outlets is probably something that is easier for a small, and therefore more flexible, publisher to do?

The other change relates to print versus digital. Many magazines, as you probably know, offer print and digital versions, while others offer one or the other, depending on their knowledge of their clientele. Those that offer both versions use them in different ways. Sometimes the print and digital versions replicate each other, sometimes they contain different content. Sometimes, placing some digital content online is used as a teaser to draw readers in. Sometimes you have to subscribe to the whole magazine, while other times you can purchase individual articles. The digital domain offers publishers so many options for reaching their readers.

Griffith Review, for example, offers some of the content of their current issue online – but other articles are only available by subscription or can be purchased individually. The Conversation writes that

It’s tempting to say that we’re in a time of transition from old (print) to new (digital) technology, and that paper will eventually disappear.

The reality is the opposite. Newer magazines like Frankie, an Australian title popular among young women, and Collective, which tackles anything from business to lifestyle and culture, are thriving and selling in print in numbers that rival mainstream women’s magazines.

I love this, I love it because it tells us once again that all those doomsayers who, when a new technology arrives, proclaim the death of the previous technology – remember those claims that television would be the death of cinema? – whereas in fact, new technologies tend to offer more choices, more ways of doing things that suit different needs. It takes time for us all to work out how we want to use new technologies versus old ones, but work it out we usually do. (Of course, some technologies never do come back but in general, I’d argue, doomsaying is not a useful approach to handling change.)

Anyhow, The Conversation goes on to say that

New titles like contemporary women’s magazine Womankind, literary journal The Lifted Brow and Archer, which explores sexuality, gender and identity, are emerging every month – not just in Australia but globally. It is a response to digital overload and distraction – a way to slow down and focus on a beautifully designed, collectible object.

They conclude that the magazine industry “continues to evolve” and that this “evolution is tied to technological change, as it always has been”. But they suggest there’s more to it, proposing that the industry is “also tied to the desire for what political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called the imagined community.” (Nice!) In other words, while social media supports our need to feel part of a group, “magazines offer … an immersion in a carefully curated space made by experts who share your interests … even if that might be babes and boars!”

So, do you read magazines – and if so, what sorts of magazines do you read, and in what form do you read them?

46 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Whither magazines?

  1. I read The Monthly, Australian Book Review, The Dura, The New Yorker, Take 5, That’s Life!, Quarterly Essay (sometimes), New Idea, Woman’s Day and occasional others. A very mixed bag!

  2. How interesting. I’ve just escaped magazine publishing after 20 years in the industry. It’s been distressing/ depressing watching the industry I love so much being squeezed at every opportunity through lack of advertising, big drops in circulation and lack of innovation / inspiration at the top. I was made redundant twice and kept coming back for more!

    I think there will always be a market for magazines, but the focus will shift from big behemoths to smaller, high-quality titles, as you’re seeing already. I worked on niche specialist titles but even they struggled to attract advertising. There are only so many display ads to go around; people no longer want to pay for classified advertising cos that’s all done online for free now. I worked on many mags where classified advertising was the key revenue stream, so when that went you can imagine what happened.

    • Thanks Kimbofo, that’s great insider insight. Both articles I think indicate that there’s no guarantee of survival for niche magazines, but they seem to have the inside running.

      Fascinating really about advertising and how it’s changing. We can all see how closely they can target our online personas. But I have no idea what they pay to be in our faces like that.

      But by classified ads are you talking more the things and services people now sell via things like ebay, or accommodation sites?

      • I can give a little insight into Facebook advertising: I have a separate FB page which is just for blog stuff as well as my own personal FB account, and FB tells me *sigh* every single time I post anything to the page that I can ‘boost it’ for $7.00. That (as I understand it) means that it would show up at the top of the feeds of other FB users. There is something else that they want me to pay $37 p/month for, but *chuckle* already I’ve forgotten what it is.
        Speaking as a user, I find that the best way to keep up with the blogs that interest me (which are a kind of magazine IMO) is to subscribe by email without any interference from social media. If I rely on following them on Twitter or FB the news that there is a new post often disappears into oblivion, presumably by other people ‘boosting’ their posts.
        I hate intrusive advertising on blogs – especially moving banner advertising – and have unsubscribed to a couple I used to like because I can’t stand their ads now that they’ve monetised their blogs.

        • Ah yes, Lisa, I manage the FB page for the Friends of the NFSA and I do boost the occasional post there for events. We pay $10 for example to reach several hundred people within 50km of Canberra (I choose that) and with interests in whatever the event topic is. So far though we haven’t identified that it does much compared to other promotions we do.

          And I’m like you re blogs. I much prefer email notification, but I think we are in the minority. Some people like using a Reader but that just creates another place I have to visit! And social media – yep agree with you there, too.

          BTW I like your definition of blogs as a type of magazine.

      • Yes, that’s what I mean by classified ads… many specialist titles rely on them. I once worked on a B2B title that had a £3m turnover pa, and 75% of that was from job ads. That was in 1999/2000. When people discovered they could post job ads online, often for free, you can guess what happened to our magazine revenue.

        I’ve witnessed massive amounts of change in a relatively short amount of time. Former colleagues tell me it’s only getting worse, so I think I was lucky to get out of the industry when I did.

        • Wow, I didn’t realise that, kimbofo. In all the digital vs print media stuff, not a lot has been said about mags – in the general media anyhow. Good for you making the change.

  3. ‘Island’ and ‘Griffith Review’ are two of my faves. Through financial necessity, I will sometimes read online but there’s nothing like holding a beautifully crafted magazine in your hands – the smell, the touch (Oh, and I confess to reading trashy mags when I’m waiting for the dentist).

    • Thanks Karen Lee, Island is one I’d like to read more consistently but I’ve read very little of it. We actually have a good range of decent mags don’t we? And I agree re holding a well-trained magazine. Online you can read the articles but you don’t really get the experience do you?

      As for trashy mags, I was thinking only recently that I do that very rarely now, as I’m more likely to get out my iPad and do something with it. I’ve had an iPad for 6 years now and I’m really aware of how I’m no longer up with celebrity gossip!

  4. I do read magazines but only subscribe to one – a Scottish art-architecture-homes magazine, others like you I buy if I’m interested in several articles when I flick through it. Libraries now offer free digital magazine downloads but it isn’t the same at all as flicking through a glossy magazine.

    • That sounds like a good one to get Pining.

      Libraries? Yes, they probably do here too. I have so much to read that I virtually never visit our library, virtually or otherwise! But I will now check it out just in case they carry ones of interest to me. Tho I agree re Online mags are not the same experience.

  5. I’ve never been a big magazine reader. I tried the Times Literary Supplement and Paris Review for a few years but found they were hardly getting read. The TLS wasn’t a great experience – the quality of articles was extremely high but the layout was so offputting. An oversize page with hardly anything to break up the sea of grey text. It always felt like I would be reading for an exam rather than for pleasure. Paris Review was much easier to read.

    We’re not likely to see the trend towards these niche magazines here I fear. The print media is struggling under the weight of a decline in the practice of reading in print and the lack of advertising support.

  6. I love magazines. I buy a couple here and there but recently I download many from the library on my Zinio for Libraries app. So many magazines. I carry them on my tablet and phone for waiting times (doctors, etc). I like art and paper magazines such as Flow from Netherlands. I like photography magazines of all kinds and the geographic magazines such as National and Australian, especially for the photos. I also like magazines to do with travel and quite often food magazines (I go through moods). When the mood changes so do the magazines. If you don’t have the Zinio app for books be sure to look it up. Hundreds of magazines all free to keep forever (or until you delete them.)

  7. I scan the headlines of a lot of magazines in the newsagent. At the library, I might sit down to read and article or story. I very rarely borrow. Last year my daughter subscribed me to Frankie. I love the quotes and pictures, all very different from regular magazines. Magazines and literary journals are not cheap for me, I rather buy a good book.

  8. PS As for magazines other than the blogs I read, like Karenlee at the hairdresser or a café I sometimes browse trashy magazines with a sense of appalled curiosity (about the readership of the magazine, not the celebrities within it) but only if I have forgotten to bring a book with me. Like Karen at Booker Talk I once subscribed to the TLS Review but abandoned it for the same reason but also because it was so often about British books not available or relevant here. I used to subscribe to the Australian Book Review too, but got fed up with it: it reviewed American books at the expense of Australian ones, devoted long pages to poetry and essays, and then branched out into reviewing theatre. Is it a *book* review magazine or not, and is it *Australian* or not?? It has a confused identity IMO, presumably because it is trying to stay afloat, but their strategy hasn’t worked for me.
    These days I subscribe to the Quarterly, and occasionally dip into the Griffith Review. Occasionally I read an article at Overland or Kill Your Darlings online, if someone has brought it to my attention, but I am usually disappointed because they are so agenda-driven and predictable.

    • Ha ha, Lisa, sounds like our magazine reading is very similar. Overland is another good one I agree. And there are the free online ones like the Sydney Review of Books which has some wonderful, indepth articles, but I only dip in. I don’t always mind an agenda if it is well or interestingly written, but I don’t read any mags comprehensively these days so it doesn’t tend to become an issue.

      • I am wary of only reading the opinions of people I agree with, so *chuckle* I force myself to read The Australian. Was fascinated to see their review of Jeff Sparrow’s book about Paul Robeson, not a book they can ignore, so nearly a third of the review was about how much the reviewer liked Robeson as a performer….

        • It’s good to know the other side, that’s for sure.

          As for Robeson, that’s the thing about reviews, particularly if you have a word limit, you can pick and choose what you focus on! Still with Robeson’s life they would have to have at least mentioned his politics but I can see how they could emphasis to what they’d see as the non-controversial aspects of his life.

  9. I like the idea that magazines will survive though I’m not sure I believe it. I’ve subscribed to all sorts of mags in the past – business, computing, trucking, literature. The glossy transport monthlies have all died, though there’s still enough advertising to support two weekly papers, one free. My only magazine subscription now is ABR and I don’t use its online version except for research. Like Lisa, I find blogs and other online sites give me more than enough to read (even celebrity goss – which in any case gets far too much prominence in the Age).

      • That’s probably true about technology making niche publications much more viable and perhaps we may be entering a sort of Silver Age in magazine publishing- Silver because niche means not much impact.

        • Haha, Ian – though perhaps niche has impact on the people it reaches!? One of the magazines in The Conversation article was on pig hunting – now that’s a niche market that advertisers can effectively target with their pig-hunting paraphernalia! Probably doesn’t have much impact outside pig hunting circles though I suspect…

  10. I used to read magazines like the National Geographic, Choice and HQ in my younger years, but I gave up all my subscriptions when I bought a house.

    We stock Womankind, New Philosopher, The Monthly, Meanjin and the Quarterly Essay at work, so I occasionally dip into one, two or three of them when I’m between books or during my lunch break. But nothing consistently and their topics or authors have to appeal.

    Like Bill I tend to mostly read other peoples blogs during my time off from reading books 🙂

    • Thanks Brona. We actually still subscribe to Choice though sometimes I wonder how useful it is.

      And yes, I too am more inclined to read blogs and the odd news site in those little times I have for reading.

  11. I do read magazines, I get them digitally through my public library. I read Bicycling Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Vegetarian Times, a few gardening magazines and now and then Wired, The Atlantic and Poets and Writers and a few others. I like the digital editions because then I don’t have the physical clutter and when I am done reading them I delete them from my virtual magazine rack.

  12. What a great topic! I used to read lots of Home Beautiful type magazines (which I would buy and borrow from the library in about equal numbers) but these days I use Pinterest to look at the same sorts of pretty pictures. I also used to subscribe to quilting magazines and horse magazines but now given my lack of time to either quilt or horse, those subscriptions have long since lapsed. Pinterest feeds me quilt and horse pictures too, and is sufficient to scratch those itches!
    These days I subscribe to Meanjin (hard copy), Kill Your Darlings and ABR (digital subscriptions) and I do so at least partly to support them, as much as to read the contents. I like to read long-form essays and these days I can source heaps for free, online. Arts & Letters Daily is a good site, as is the LongForm app.
    I subscribe to Choice (again online but like Sue, I do wonder why). I also enjoy receiving my monthly edition of the Writers Victoria newsletter/magazine in the post. And I look forward to reading celebrity trash mags at the hairdresser. I’ve always been an omnivorous reader and, now that I look over them, my magazine preferences reflect that too.

    • Pinterest! Haha, love it Michelle. I do that on an ad hoc basis too – and keep getting notifications about pins for my Depression Glass board (one of my little enthusiasms), and various food, gardening ideas, and Yoga ones. A bit omnivorous too you see. I’m sorry you don’t get time anymore to horse!!

      I don’t know Arts & Letters Daily. Will check that out.

  13. I used to be a big magazine reader – pre-kids, Gourmet Traveller was my favourite, as well as the odd Marie Claire etc. I continued the magazine habit when my kids were little, mainly because I could read in small bites. A few years ago, I cancelled all of my subscriptions after realising that there was a back-log of issues still in their plastic mailing sleeves… I figured I’d buy individual issues and then re-subscribe if I wanted. As it turned out, that didn’t happen – I rarely buy any and the only subscription I have is for the quarterly UK niche publication, Cereal. I don’t think any of this is a reflection on the magazines though, just a change in my reading habits.

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