Why We Need Magazines

The current state of the media landscape in 2024. In a world of internet writing, is this the last escape for readers?

City Style and Living Why We Need Magazines
/ K&S Media

Flipping open a well-known UK magazine, I was pleased to discover an exquisitely written travel article. Although it lacked a little magic, it was written in a startling, contemporary style. Its author was from what used to be called the third world with quotes almost exclusively from locals or those from fellow third world nations, and, on careful reading, thoroughly suffused with Eastern philosophy. For all of those things it was entirely fresh, new, unexpected. Absolutely nothing like the magazine travel writing to which I had become accustomed. Perhaps a couple thousand words, it captured the quintessence of the place in a few anecdotes and descriptions. In that way, it was very much like most magazine travel articles.

Part of the shock and glee upon reading it was the refreshing realization that here indeed was editorial, and by that, I mean writing with no discernible advertising purpose. Writing which introduces the reader to a whole world created by the author. The motivation of the author is simply to write it into being. That alone was in stark contrast to what I had been subjected to, I mean, reading for the better part of a year, online.

What those online pieces lacked, and what this magazine article had, was the sheer power of words – the ability to say something, anything just for the sheer pleasure of it. All the online work I had been reading was in service, ultimately, of making money. I, as reader, was subjected to a bulging and bungling processions of words whose aim was so transparently to make someone money that I was constantly dejected. I’d get to the end of a piece only to think, oh, all of those words were just to get me to buy this product or refer me to this service? Reading online has largely become an exercise in wading through advertising carefully disguised as information. The reader is not a person, the reader is treated as a pocketbook, a bank account, a credit card. Words are only stand-ins, substitutes for the real commerce taking place.

It may very well be that online, web, and social media authorship constitute a style and genre unto themselves. Language evolves or dies and this new, online genre may be the latest incarnation of English. Much of its impetus though is driven by SEO (search engine optimization), affiliate links and monetization. The communication is not so much clumsy as it is, rather bizarrely at times, ridden with references that neither help move the story along, nor inform, nor elucidate any clarifying point, nor express anything worthwhile at all. (I do not need to hear about your dog’s vet appointment prior to getting to a recipe; I do not need to know every website you visited before booking your travel just to get to your holiday recommendations). Driven by commerce and clicks it makes for awkward reading. Entire paragraphs about nothing that would have been cut by an editor, but which remain, because user engagement is key. Words chosen not for their accuracy but because they rank well with search engines. Ideas culled entirely from social media or trending hashtags. Words chosen for analytics and monetization are something else.

As the actual words and their meaning have no intrinsic value and are just a vehicle for steering readers’ behaviour toward certain actions, which all culminate with spending money, it really does not matter who writes the story (or what writes the story, in the case of AI). The lure of this type of online article may be that it is accessible, anyone can do it, anywhere in the world. Grammar and prose be damned. Words be damned. Sense be damned. Reader be damned. There is no created world. The author does not even attempt it. Where’s the money in that?

In a magazine there is always a question of length. Word count is limited. On the web, everything is an infinite scroll. Eventually, you’ll land on something you like, something you buy. This leads to stories that are inflated beyond need and which become tedious to the reader. One of the most important aspects of writing is what you leave out. Editing is the hardest part. “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Editing takes time. Attention-grabbing headlines, attention seeking stories, attention sucking paragraphs that hide key points are what currently sell. By today’s online standards, it takes too long to edit, and the point is not to make reading enjoyable anyway.

Magazines are discerning (ideally). They turn down advertisers they deem contrary to their editorial direction, try to appeal to their readers’ tastes and they take loads of varying ideas and distill them to a few trends. Not everything makes the cut. That was the beauty of that travel article in that UK magazine. It was an impression of a place not a recitation of everything that happened, a lot was cut out.

Perhaps it’s a matter of degrees. Every magazine must carefully dance between editorial and advertising. Attracting both is at the heart of success. It seems though that online work takes this one step further, relying even more heavily on advertorial and advertising than was ever the case with magazines. That UK article was the only piece of writing I encountered last year. It was the only piece that was not trying to sell me something. If magazines are the last refuge of editorial, of writing, then that alone makes them worthy of saving.

Writing is an art. Writing is considered. Every writer wants to make money from his or her work, of course. But, that’s secondary. Expression is the first aim – creating a world from a blank page. When writing is dictated solely (or primarily) by money, is it really writing?

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