Observer: Not Dead Yet

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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 downward.

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, advertising.

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 Magazine, 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.