Saturday, September 5, 2009

What is a magazine?

Summary: An exploration of the essence of magazines reveals that their defining characteristics have more to do with how they represent and enable communities rather than any physical or publishing characteristic.

Why define magazines?

As I work toward launching a new magazine, I am contemplating a question that seems to have an obvious answer to many people, but is definitely contentious, and for which there is no real consensus. Although finding a concrete answer might also seem like a philosophical pursuit of no real importance, I think it is pretty important to be aware of what I am about to do. I should probably already know the answer to this as editor-in-chief of one magazine that I built, but the changing publishing landscape prompts me to re-examine it. Knowing what makes a magazine also gives us a chance to emphasize what is characteristic and gives us hints as where we could focus our efforts.

There are really two questions to disentangle in this discussion: “what have magazines traditionally been?” and “what is a magazine in essence?” It is the latter I am most interested in.

Of course, a far more interesting question than "What is a magazine?" is to ask how to best connect writers and readers. However, I wanted to think about this particular much smaller question as a starting point. I also find it an interesting question to ask because there are these things called "magazines" out there. Does that label actually mean anything? And if it does, what does it mean? I am working on the assumption that it does have a meaning, but you can decide whether or not the label "magazine" is meaningful based on my analysis here. If the concept of a magazine no longer has any use, that is also a very helpful thing to know. [Note: This paragraph added in response to very useful comments from Michael Nielsen. He is entirely right that the bigger question is more interesting, but I never actually got the reason for choosing this smaller question into the essay.]