Observer: Not Dead Yet

For a medium
that is regularly pronounced to be living on borrowed time, the magazine
seems to be in a surprisingly perky state of health. If you took the
industry’s temperature by scanning the racks in Borders, you might
find it hard to credit that there is any problem at all. London branches
of the store, like their American counterparts, are awash with titles
catering to every conceivable interest and taste. In reality, though,
while there are more titles on sale than ever, the total number of sales
in the U.S.—366 million copies a year—has remained the same
since 1990, so the trend for many publications is

Nevertheless, as the title of a recent book put it, We
Love Magazines
—the “we” in this case being design
people. The book accompanied the Colophon2007 symposium in Luxembourg,
an event about independent magazines co-curated by Jeremy Leslie, a
British magazine-design supremo at the custom publishing house John
Brown. Leslie is also author of magCulture, a survey of
contemporary magazines that later became a popular blog. In January, he
was at it again, co-organizing a conference with the title
“Magazines Are Dead: Long Live the Magazine!” (Maybe there
is no revival; maybe it’s just Leslie’s tireless promotional
activities that make it seem as if there must be one going on.)

I used
to be an obsessive follower of what was happening in magazines, but
it’s an expensive and space-consuming habit, and I eventually
slowed down. I always took it for granted that the best magazines
offered a combination of great writing and great visual appeal, with
design as an expression of the content. Lately, the trend has been more
and more toward magazines that you look at rather than read in any
concerted way, and Leslie’s first magazine survey, Issues,
actually began with the declaration, “I don’t read
magazines.” Someone else wrote those words, but they set the tone
for the whole book. For a writer, the sentiment is a complete turnoff.
Apart from art and design titles, the magazines I tend to buy these days
are publications devoted to commentary about books, music, film, and
politics. While it’s important that they are designed for
comfortable reading, they will never be featured in roundups of the
latest trendy design.

So I decided to conduct a survey. My method was
simple. I went to Borders and bought every youthful, creative,
free-spirited, independent British magazine that caught my eye. Many of
these titles occupy or extend the style-magazine territory defined by
The Face (now defunct), i-D (founded in 1980 and still
soldiering on), and later by Dazed & Confused and
Sleazenation. Sleazenation is now also departed, and was
the last title of this kind I read regularly because I liked its sharp,
historical awareness of pop culture and its critical, questioning view
of the corporate pressures on contemporary youth culture. In no
particular order, here are the titles I took home: Flux,
Blag, Fused Magazine, Product, Garageland,
Wonderland, Wound, Sublime, Karen,
Amelia’s Magazine, Let Them Eat Cake, Nude,
Bad Idea, Meat Magazine, and Little White Lies.
Most of these titles have arrived on the stands since 2000, and some are
just a few issues old, although it turned out that
Blag—founded by art student twins and financed these days
entirely by sponsored advertorials—has been around in one form or
another since 1992.

What I was hoping to find were magazines that
convey a sense of necessity. They need to exist because they have
something to say that no other publication expresses with the same
urgency, excitement, inventiveness, completeness, or precision. They
come from a deep sense of commitment, they are propelled by genuine
passion, and they offer information and insights that simply
aren’t available with the same vividness anywhere else. They
express their moment because they participate in it, yet they also stand
a little apart from it, showing self-awareness and a capacity for
reflection that isn’t possible for absolute insiders. Above all,
they define their own agenda.

Design is a significant factor, though
it cannot be the sole criterion or even the first consideration. For a
magazine to gel, it needs an editorial vision. That vision may come from
a designer, if the designer is also the founder, publisher, editor, or
an especially potent force in the magazine’s creation, and it may
well involve visual ideas and visual expression, but there has to be
subject matter—content—before there can be expression. If
the content is compelling, the magazine can hold together and engage the
reader—note reader—even if the design doesn’t
break new ground.

Good examples of this are Nude, which offers
“music, graphics, and hip lit”; Bad Idea, devoted to
“modern storytelling”; and Little White Lies, a film
magazine. All of these journal-like publications, with attractively
small pages, have visual strengths—Little White Lies
illustrated covers, each based on a film image, are particularly
effective—but their reason for being is to explore cultural,
literary, and cinematic subject matter that their editors and writers
know and care about. Although Meat Magazine and
Garageland, both five issues old (as is Bad Idea), have
yet to show the same coherence, they put a notable emphasis on writing;
it would be perverse to buy any of these titles merely to flip the
pages. All of them get by, at least for now, with little, if any,

Fashion-led titles play by different rules, so here we
have no choice but to flip. The 11th issue of Wonderland is
clotted with ads from Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Gucci, and DKNY,
followed by pages of tedious, narcissistic fashion shoots. The design
has a kind of informal monumentality that quickly becomes repetitive.
Yet whenever I was on the verge of tossing Wonderland aside, an
intriguing article would pop up about shop-window dummies, the
continuing relevance of cut-and-paste collage-making, or the found photo
artworks of Canadian artist Steven Shearer.

The second issue of the
bizarrely titled and even fatter Wound—the name comes from
a line in a Robert Frost poem—shows greater signs of wanting to
have it both ways by serving the commercial fashion system while coming
on like a fire-breathing, free-thinking radical. “There’s an
underground renaissance around the corner,” says a designer.
“There’s a lot of us out there ready for change.” If
they threw out the interminable fashion spreads and kept the
well-researched features about androgyny (the issue’s theme),
synth punk, and the use of color in architecture, it would make an
engagingly eccentric arts mag—it already reads like it’s
been hijacked by art-school lecturers. As it stands, Wound goes
to a lot of editorial trouble for something that’s bound to be
treated as a flipbook. Let Them Eat Cake, the best-designed title in my
informal survey, is much lighter on its feet, making this fresh-faced
fashion newcomer one to watch, although it has a long way to go to match
the editorial confidence and panache of The Face or i-D,
which were always worth reading in their heyday.

Most of these
magazines are small-scale, intimate ventures in which the presence and
personality of the people who make them is evident. Amelia’s
, a lavish, ultra-feminine, relentlessly patterned and
curlicued production—reading it feels a bit like being smothered
in a pile of floral cushions—is the creation of
publisher–editor–art director Amelia Gregory, a one-woman,
home-publishing powerhouse. Issue eight is as thick as Vogue:
This one may go far. By contrast, Karen is an agreeably petite,
restrained, and almost poetic meditation on everyday life and ordinary
experience in words and pictures, put together by someone who may be
called Karen. It’s about as close to a personal blog as a magazine
could be.

Leslie argues that the future of magazines (such as it is)
lies in becoming even more magazine-like and supplying distinctive,
design-led experiences that you can’t get from the web: unusual
paper stock, page formats, special extras, freebies. These British
independent magazines, which usually depend on a symbiotic relationship
with a website, certainly cater to an enduring need for tactile,
smell-the-ink, hold-it-in-your-hands “thing-ness.” While
none of these titles could yet be called a classic, several of
them—Bad Idea, Little White Lies,
Karen—do convey a sense of real necessity. They also
confirm that the urge to publish a magazine, even now in the age of
immediate online dissemination, comes from seeing thoughts and opinions
given the tangibility and satisfying permanence of ink on paper.
Adventurous ideas have always required words for their fullest
expression. Magazines will surely wither without good writing.