Are Print Magazines Still Relevant? ATG Asks the Expert: Mr. Magazine-An ATG Original

by | Sep 28, 2020 | 0 comments


by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries

A woman looks at magazines displayed at a kiosk in Zurich March 16 , 2015. One of Switzerland’s two big supermarkets, Coop, is to stop selling titles such as German magazine Der Spiegel, the German-language edition of Vogue and a Mickey Mouse comic because it says local distributors have not cut prices after a currency surge. The Swiss central bank’s decision on Jan. 15 to end a cap on the value of the currency at 1.20 Swiss francs per euro sent the franc skyrocketing and led to fears for Switzerland’s export-reliant economy. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann (SWITZERLAND – Tags: MEDIA BUSINESS) – GM1EB3H00BN01

Oprah Winfrey recently announced a shift in her media kingdom with what publishing partner, Hearst called a “rethinking the future of the magazine’s print editions and following a more digital-focused route following its December 2020 issue.” Hearst representatives went on to call this “a natural next step for the brand, which has grown to an online audience of 8 million, extending its voice and vision with video and social content. We will continue to invest in this platform as the brand grows and evolves into one that is more digitally centric.”

The potential passing of a print O Magazine joins many other formally print publications in the past few years:  Teen Vogue, Nylon, Redbook, Glamour, etc.  Most have moved to the web, hoping that their brand and new forms of advertising/branding income will provide a stronger base for the future. As WWD (Women’s Wear Daily) noted recently, “May editions wrapped up before the crisis exploded, the full extent of the toll it will take on advertising will likely not be seen until the crucial September issues.”  

Advertising is definitely an issue during the pandemic. “While down significantly from the long-gone heyday of magazine publishing,” WWD continues, “there will still no doubt be a decent amount of advertisements from luxury brands in these titles at a time when many have closed their stores, are making face masks instead of clothes and handbags, and have slashed their marketing budgets due to the global plunge in their revenues over the first few months of the year.”

In a recent letter to Oliver Dowden, the British secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, The Professional Publishers’ Association (PPA), which includes Condé Nast U.K., Hearst U.K., Time Out Group and Net-a-porter Group, warned that publishers’ advertising revenues down the coming quarter, with double digit declines across the sector.”  In the letter, PPA explained that “while there is some resilience in newsstand and subscription sales, this cannot compensate for the loss of advertising revenue or the postponement and cancellation of publisher events and exhibitions, which are down 90% across the sector this quarter.”

However, the problem exists for all types of printed magazines today. As Elizabeth Groeneveld explains in the 2020 Wiley book, Handbook of Magazine Studies, “the growth of the Internet in the 1990’s and 2000’s fundamentally reshaped the magazine publishing landscape. Almost all men’s and women’s magazines now exist either entirely online or as hybrids of online and print content.” 

For over 250 years, popular magazines have been a critical component in popularizing new ideas and products, giving in depth analysis and examination of issues of the day and as places where writers can share their expressions, opinions, facts and analyses with a wide audience. For over 95 years the New Yorker has proved in depth analysis and discussion, long-form essays, critical studies and literary gems to readers who seek out what is being called “slow journalism.”


“Journalism,” Australian Megan Le Masurier wrote in a 2015 Journalism Practice article  “refers to more than the news of the day (be it hard or soft), more than breaking news, in fact, not just ‘the news’ but also the ‘new,’ and sometimes ‘the old’.” Masurier recently explored the development of what has been called “slow journalism” in this way: “Slow as a deliberate subversion of the dominance of speed in our everyday lives. The source of inspiration comes from Slow Food (SF). 

“The SF movement began as a protest against fast food in Rome in 1989, with protestors sitting outside McDonalds eating bowls of penne” (Handbook of Magazine Studies, 2020, Wiley). Most readers of The New Yorker or similar thought-publications would probably agree! “Slow magazines,” Masurie explains, can be seen in the “rise in the number of indie magazines being made and read in the digital twenty‐first century, a time when print was meant to be dying and screens were to take over our working and personal lives.”  

Another chapter in the same Wiley book reflects on how communication design in magazines has been  essential to the diffusion and adoption of popular innovation. This study found that “communication design was well developed in the late 19th century in the U.S.. Through design, imagery, and message communication, design of these popular magazines reflected concerns of the day and educated readers about new ideas and inventions.” They explain that “The Ladies Home Journal, 1889–1899, exemplifies ways that communication design engaged the public and helped mainstream new ideas and technologies.” Despite this key role, the Journal folded in 2018.

In February 2019, the British print communications industries came together to launch a new initiative based on research from 2018 that found “radio and print perform significantly better than advertisers and agencies expect for brand building campaigns, while online media is all too often overvalued.” 


The current mantra is pushing the move to “digital only” for all types of print media – books, magazines, news and more.  However, “in terms of audience measurement,” Marketing Week data reports, “online video and online display were rated the highest of any channel by marketers for their ability to measure response instantly and in detail. However, print, TV and radio came out on top again when examining the evidence.”

“There has been an increasing disconnect between the body of evidence that shows the effectiveness of magazines and the perceptions of their role on the plan within agencies,” notes Magnetic CEO Sue Todd. 

Aileen Gallagher, associate professor of magazine, news and digital journalism at Syracuse University, told CNN Business that while social platforms like Instagram have become real-time tastemakers, magazines add value in their curation and overall presentation. “Nothing comes close to replicating that sense of discovery and delight that comes from reading a print magazine,” Gallager told the magazine. “I don’t think they are going to go back to being as popular as they once were, but I think there’s still a place for print because it delivers like nothing else does.” 


An article in The Australian explained that although magazine readership had been declining for years, decreasing revenues from ads and sales, COVID-19 accelerated the decline during which even point-of-sales locations in airports, malls and bookstores withered away. However, as Australia’s On the Record website explains, “though the coronavirus accelerated the decline of magazines, audiences, particularly the younger readership, seem to be leaning more towards social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter, as well as other online news sources for their entertainment, lifestyle news and gossip.”

“Inflight magazines have a long and mostly proud tradition that dates back to the 1950’s,” a recent Forbes article notes. “Yet, with flights canceled and COVID requirements against shared media, experts see a strong future for these magazines that speak to a ‘captive’ audience during air travel.”  Forbes notes that “those feel-good familiarities such as the inflight magazine can go a long way in making the travel experience feel as ‘normal’ as possible.” Perhaps these will, in fact, survive COVID.

Certainly fine storytelling from diverse perspectives and the topics with compelling writing are still thriving in such print publications as The Atlantic, Pro Publica, New Yorker, Economist, New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair. Today they have been joined by some excellent online-only sites like Southerly, Longform, Longreads, The Cut, and others that also focus on issues from culture, history, economics, social justice, education and investigations. However, many of us still prefer to curl up with something other than a computer for our serious reading. 


To British philosopher Francis Bacon, the printing press was one of three inventions that “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.” As notes: “In 1672, the first ‘periodical of amusement’ was published. Le Mercure Galant (later called Mercure de France), was created by French writer and playwright Jean Donneau de Vizé. The publication contained news, songs, short verses and gossip. Despite being disparaged by other writers of the day for its amusing rather than intellectual content, the periodical became very popular in France.” 

The first American magazines came in 1741 with both Philadelphia newspaper publishers Andrew Bradford and Benjamin Franklin —who owned rivaling newspapers—both raced to publish the first American magazine. They both succeeded, though their publications didn’t last long. And, yes, they included advertisements. However, they were soon followed by others that not only informed but entertained and educated readers across the continent and time.

As of 2018, over seven thousand magazines were in publication in the U.S. Although the overall numbers are falling, magazines appear to be a solid publishing staple. Though, monetizing the generally free websites is still an issue while print publications returned over $27 billion in revenues for publishers. 


Dr. Samir Husni, professor and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at Ole Miss, is also known as Mr. Magazine for his knowledge and keen insights into the trends and economics of magazine publishing today. We interviewed him to get his insights on the marketplace today.

1. As a recent article in The Australian explained magazine readership had been declining for years, decreasing revenues from ads and sales, accelerated by COVID-19 during which even point-of-sales locations in airports, malls and bookstores withered away. However, others see no such loss.

Samir Husni: Define “others.” If the question refers to other mediums rather than print magazines, I cannot speak about that. However, I can say that there has been a resurgence in the value and entertainment qualities of print. Like a fine wine, print only gets better with age. Many who wish to break away from so much screen time are seeking the permanence and the tactile experience that only print can offer. 

I interviewed Vanessa Coppes recently, CEO and Editor in Chief, Bella Magazine, and she told me this: “Print is important because print makes something permanent. And the acknowledgement that you receive from seeing your stories on a printed page is something that’s quite literally indescribable. It’s like getting to the top of the mountain. Before all of this, my first article in print I literally cried. It became real to me. It just felt like I had gotten to a part of where I wanted to go.”

How many celebrities or other notables feel that sense of accomplishment when they make the front of a website? Yet, when they get a cover of a magazine, it’s a totally different reaction. It’s that declaration of: “I’ve made it. I’m on the cover of a magazine.”

The Greek philosopher Parmenides believed that “whatever is is, and what is not cannot be,” follows the permanence theory. If Parmenides was alive today, I feel sure that he would agree the permanence of print and the fleeting nature of digital are in total opposition of each other, yet together can work extremely well. 

Now, with COVID-19, of course, travel has been terribly affected and airport sales reflect that. Malls and bookstores have also seen closures and declines. But for many magazine brands, subscriptions are up and during quarantine; people were enjoying their print products.

2. The current mantra is moving to “digital only” for all types of print media – books, magazines, news and more. However, “in terms of audience measurement,” Marketing Week data reports, “online video and online display were rated the highest of any channel by marketers for their ability to measure response instantly and in detail. However, print, TV and radio came out on top again when examining the evidence.”

Samir Husni

Samir Husni: That’s because the integration of print and digital is the only success. Monetizing digital-only has proven to be quite daunting, but when you continue and value your print product and add the digital extensions, be it web, video, podcast, etc., everything can work in conjunction with all the moving parts. Digital-only will never work. I have always said that as long as we have humans, we will have print. And I stand by that today. Print, and TV and radio are proven factors when it comes to generating revenue and audience engagement. And I believe that will continue.

3. Some claim that Oprah’s apparent move for her O magazine is a bellwether of more significant changes to come. The inclusion of digital magazines isn’t, in and of itself, bad –most print magazines today have well-developed websites for both their readers and the wider population. Monies from these have been significant to shoring up profits in an uncertain time.

Samir Husni

Samir Husni: While the decision to suspend the print edition in December 2020 for O, the Oprah Magazine is quite upsetting, considering its audience’s love for all things Oprah, Hearst and Oprah herself have to do what they feel is best for their brand. And of course, COVID-19 has been a deciding factor in all of this as people’s habits and ways of getting their information has had to change. I don’t see this as a bellwether of more significant changes, however. I teach my Journalism 101 students that everything has a lifecycle and just because one magazine dies, it doesn’t mean the entire print medium is about to become extinct. When a television show has run its course, that doesn’t mean the burial of all of them.

4. Using your crystal ball – and based on many of your comments from your website – could you give our readers a sense of the industry today, the challenges it faces and the role of print vs. digital in the future?

Samir Husni: The challenges of publishing during a pandemic are obvious: distribution can be tricky, actually obtaining your content can also be a bit harrowing when travel and interviews are on the downside, but it can be done as even daytime soap operas are innovating and returning to the small screen. And that’s key. Innovation. It has been since digital burst upon the scene in 2008. The role of print vs. digital should not even exist in the 21st century. As my grandson told me when I asked him which he preferred, his Harry Potter books on his iPad or in print?  He looked up at me and asked: “Why should I have to choose? I have both now.”  Indeed. 


Life magazine was established by Henry Luce  with the goal “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events … to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.” Today, we have instant information and news available 24/7 and it meets a key need that we have; however, in those quiet moments we still have deeper, more personal experiences with the issues, people and events of our day.  

Interviewing BELLA Magazine’s CEO Vanessa Coppes for his Mr. Magazine website, she noted that “it’s [print] what our readers want from us. A magazine is a response to human behavior. Our reader is a reader that either walks into a bookstore or orders the publication online, which is what we’ve done over the past few months because of the pandemic.” 

“Print is like nothing else,” Coppes continued. “It’s like a great book. It’s literally nestling on a couch with a cup of coffee or some hot cocoa and your magazine. It’s learning about different people and places. Right now everything is aspirational; we’re not getting on planes for a while, but at least on the pages of Bella you can look through beautiful images of different parts of the country and the world and still stay connected to people, places and things.” 

We can only hope that this will continue on, for as Maya Angelou said “in a magazine, one can get – from cover to cover – 15 to 20 different ideas about life and how to live it.” The potential death of any source of information and knowledge is a cultural loss of major dimensions. In this age of abundant information, why close doors or shutter media?


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