PAPER VS. PIXEL — WHEN WRITING ABOUT MAGAZINES GOES BAD

Consider this another cautionary tale. Over a year ago, I cockily accepted Acyde’s challenge to provide a top 10 magazines pieces for TMI. It sounded easy — I like magazines. I quite like writing. Job done. I went home and wrote it over a few hours, mourning the print industry and sneering at Kindles and other modes of techno-book. Then I found myself returning to it every other week to add a publication and switch something to my RIP section, as for every new indie on the market, a handful more would perish, never seeing a follow-up issue. Then it seemed to go the other way. More introductions and less passings. Then Steve Jobs announced the iPad, and I gave up.

I seemed to have haplessly timed this piece at a time when magazine industry shapeshifted and a recession was being ridden out. As a result, the text below is included as an example of ill-timed writing. Some of the prose uses references so dated, i may as well be babbling on about BSB Squarials and Rabbit Telecommunications.

My attempt at a magazines top ten falters because it changes daily (I think there’s a good case to have put ‘Frank151’ in there too). I think ‘Swallow went under, ‘Sup’ is cool but they owe me freelance £ and I’m not sure that ‘Apartamento’ is actually that good.

‘Mark’, ‘B’, ‘Proper’, ‘Brownbook’ , ‘SOME/THINGS’, ‘Novembre’ , ‘Huge’, ‘Dodgem Logic’, ‘Slider’, ‘No’, ‘Journal de Nimes’ , Tyler’s ‘Mediterraneo’, the amazing ‘McSweeney’s newspaper one-off, ‘Livingproof’, ‘AIE’ and ‘Obscura’ are things I probably would have mentioned now, either as new startups, case-studies or contenders. Lesson learned. Don’t try to summarise something this vast in a few sickly paragraphs.

PAPER VS. PIXEL

“Who be first to catch this Beat Down?/My Rap Pages be the Source/Ego Trip remain victory and no loss/Rap sheet show you details of wars in streets/Where the most live, catch Vibe and Blaze heat…”
GZA ‘Publicity’

2009 was subjected to a papery cull, and the increasingly barren shelves of your local newsagent attests to this. On the achingly familiar work route, a newsstand, once dense with logos, bombastic cover stories and promises of informational enlightenment has downsized into a metal shack with only a fraction in stock.

Many have fallen these last few months. Some, like ‘Maxim,’ were publications you might have assumed were defunct in the first place — others, like ‘FACT,’ recently forced into an excellent online-only form after the free status didn’t work for them, deserved a bigger spotlight, but with a net-savvy, MP3 right-clickers as it’s core readership, once openly questioning as to who the hell actually buys music magazines in this day and age.

In fact, dwelling on the music magazines, some might say, that the Dad-rock periodicals, ‘Mojo,’ ‘Uncut’ and ‘Q’ may live to cover more Bolan and Coldplay by dint of a readership that isn’t net-savvy in the slightest. ‘Vibe’ bit the dust. Many grew up with that magazine around them might mourn them — beyond the daft internet polls, it’s a shame – Bobbito, Bonz Malone, Cheo H. Coker and Kevin Powell’s work was part of a golden age of black music journalism, but by instigating a brouhaha around the best hip-hop blogs, one can’t help but feel they championed one of the key causes of their own demise. Anyhow, most hadn’t bought it since it switched from saddlestitch to a perfect bind.

On a similar topic, whatever your opinion of ‘HHC,’ it was something of a UK institution, pre-empting the deluge of hip-hop publications, and its absence leaves a gap on the shelves that, like Romero’s mall-dwelling undead, those grabbing it monthly out of habit find themselves scowling at the missing shelf link between ‘XXL’ and ‘Knowledge’.

For years, even the most tinpot tech prophets have been predicting print press’s downfall, but it took a recession and the knock-on with advertising budgets to cause the real closures. It’s not just music magazines taking a slap — ‘Arena’ went under, and ‘i-D’ is now bi-monthly. What’s the solution? ‘i-D’ has been stronger in the last two years than it has been for a while. Magazines should exist without electronic interruptions. Online, everyone’s a critic and everyone’s a writer.

A blog onslaught offers no substitution for excellent editorial — magazines have long been the training ground for some of the most astute cultural commentators, while the many blogs deemed “influential” lack insight, critique and all but the most rudimentary writing skills. They’re no replacement for a tactile, well-structured paper reading experience. A smartphone or iPad offers little of the tactile ritual of purchase, dog-earing, flicking, pass-around or zoning out on enlightenment during public transport. That’s not to say print press has any right to respect above online publications. From a personal perspective, the two just feel, despite attempts at synergy, with PDFs, flick-through previews, archives and exclusive passworded content, like utterly different entities — paper versus pixel.

Conversely, just jumping feet-first into print without a killer application, well-selected team or ability shouldn’t be a fast track to credibility. Call it quaint, but the magazine, in its position as an informer, and ideally, an agitator and thought provoker, should educate, enlighten and challenge its readership. Those heading up a project should be great writers, great minds and troublemakers. Telling them exactly what they already know makes for a passive, nod-along experience, as uninvolving as elderly neighbourly smalltalk, that’s utterly throwaway.

These are disposable times, and it takes a little more to be supreme. At time-of-writing, with a little digging, what’s available is excellent, albeit disparate. There’s no handy compendium cherry-picking what’s a necessary read. You’ll have to work for it. As of yet, no one’s captured the current bloggy zeitgeist in a refined, unpretentious way. Elsewhere, pseudo-pretension without an inkling of ability, insight or intelligence just keeps on sinking newcomers.

The magazine diet is utterly subjective. The following is tinged more than a little with a mildly male bias, and only scratches the surface of the sheer number of publications worth celebrating. There are many, many notable omissions.

For example, while it’s easy to keep it strictly niche, arguably, mainstream publications like ‘The New Yorker,’ ‘The Nation,’ ‘National Geographic,’ ‘Time’ and ‘Wired’ (US edition only please) warrant a place in a top ten. Some magazines had glory days that have since passed — ‘The Source,’ ‘XXL,’ ‘Loaded’ (anyone remember a doomed pilot issue of their foodie spinoff, ‘Eat Soup’?), ‘Newsweek’ and ‘Rolling Stone’ are perfect case studies.

Others are honourable mentions — ‘Dazed’ (and its Japanese edition), ‘Empire’ for the ’09 Spielberg guest-shot, ‘Lightning,’ ‘Groove,’ ‘Paradis,’ ‘Popeye,’ ‘Clark,’ ‘Spray,’ ‘Lodown’ for holding it down where others have come and gone, ‘Vice’ for providing stronger content than the lion’s share of magazines for sale despite the hate, ‘Monocle’ — smug but informative, ‘Juxtapoz,’ ‘Warp,’ ‘Sense,’ ‘Murder Dog,’ ‘Acne Paper,’ ‘Wallpaper*,’ ‘Thrasher,’ ‘FRANK151,’ ‘NEWWWORK,’ ‘Xplicit Grafx,’ ’Little White Lies,’ Wax Poetics,’ ‘Elephant’ ‘Arkitip’ and its newspaper project, ‘Draft,’ ‘The Rig Out,’ ‘Qompendium,’ ‘The Journal,’ ‘Zoetrope,’ ‘Creative Review,’ ‘INVENTORY,’ ‘Lurve,’ ‘It’s Nice That,’ ‘ME,’ ‘Man About Town,’ ‘Purple,’ ‘Pop,’ ‘Frank151,’ ‘Wooooo,’ ‘ANP Quarterly,’ ‘Arena Homme+’ ‘Fire & Knives,’ , Complex,’ ’ Kilimanjaro,’ ‘Mono Journals,’ ‘Sneaker Freaker,’ ‘Encens,’ ‘Men’s Non-No,’ ‘Vogue Homme Japan,’ ‘No.Zine’ ‘A Magazine,’ ‘032c’ and ‘Sneeze’ are all strong.

In fact, the ‘Vice’ movie issue and ‘Frank151’ De La Soul were the two best issues of any magazine last year. And they didn’t cost a damn thing.

Before continuing, a moment-of-silence for the other fallen soldiers worth stacking – ‘Neon,’ ‘On The Go,’ ‘Philosophy,’ ‘True,’ ‘Grand Royal,’ ‘Rap Pages,’ ‘Select,’ ‘Street Scene,’ ‘Blues & Soul,’ ‘TAR,’ ‘Year Zero,’ ‘Life Sucks Die,’ ‘Mugshot,’ ‘One Nut,’ ‘Mass Appeal,’ ‘Boon,’ ‘Missbehave,’ ’12oz Prophet,’ ‘Relax,’ ‘Ego Trip,’ ‘Jack,’ ‘+1,’ ‘Phat,’ ‘Dirt,’ ‘Scratch,’ ‘Jockey Slut,’ ‘Sassy,’ ‘The Face,’ Rap Sheet,’ ‘Sky,’ ‘The Bomb,’ ‘Represent,’ ‘Big Brother,’ ‘Select,’ ‘The End,’ ‘Boy’s Own,’ ‘The Downlow,’ ‘Beat Down,’ ‘Big Daddy,’ ‘Grand Slam,’ ‘RAD,’ ‘Elemental,’ ‘Kings,’ and ‘Straight No Chaser’.

There’s no daft numerical ‘Top Trumps’ style criteria at work here. The following ten magazines are highlighted for their presentation, taking specific topics and just going all-out. What works and what doesn’t is down to personal taste. One key criteria is that sense of anticipation on purchase, and a lengthy read on returning home. At what point does a magazine just become a book? Is self-proclaimed ‘journal’ status a snooty attempt to rise above? A certain regularity, be it monthly, quarterly or annually, and a position on magazine shelves were the clinchers here.

Rouleur

One benchmark of good magazines is to make the niche utterly absorbing. Bikes are all around you, but ‘Rouleur’ veers to the serious side of bikes as a sport, with plenty of hobbyist touches. Track bikes, road bikes…whatever — 2009 was the year that the fixed fixation truly sank into self-parody, but look beyond goons in checks and a one-leg pinroll, and you can appreciate the discipline, construction and beautiful builds that make cycling so appealing.

‘Rouleur’ is truly covetable without spot varnishing, embossing and other fuss, bar paper stock switches – it oozes serious cyclist without alienating the browser with minimal interest in pedal-power. The photo essays are stunning, it feels cohesive, contemporary and curiously ageless, and Guy Andrews is an editor who takes the two-wheeled subject matter extremely seriously. Whether it’s kinetic, mud splattering tournament shots, or static, fetishistic vehicular deconstructions, this is a phenomenal undertaking. Even the ads for brands like Rapha (owned by the same company) are beautiful. Guy’s history of Reynolds in issue fifteen is particularly strong.

www.rouleur.cc


Swallow Magazine

Food magazines out there tend to fall into two camps — the snotty bon viveur (their time’s limited – see the demise of ‘Gourmet’ for proof) member’s club feel, or the housewife’s choice. Neither appeal. It’s surprising that an appetite for something that captures a current spirit of gastronomic fetishism hadn’t been sated up to this point. ‘Swallow Magazine’ gives it a damned good try. See that cover image? That’s Salmiakki licourice right there.

Giving each issue a specific regional feel, the inaugural edition is strictly Nordic. Essays on the local mushrooms, beautifully rendered pencil illustrations of reactions to dishes during a family dinner, food label scans, fishing trip photo journalism, black metal pubs and tasty looking Karelian pastys make up the content, and the design and photography is spectacular, down to the embossed hardcover.

www.swallowmagazine.com


Apartamento

Published in Barcelona, with offices in Milan, ‘Apartamento’ is staffed by a mob who look and dress like, well, the kind of people that work on a magazine called ‘Apartamento’. But while the likes of ‘Wallpaper’ are merely aspirational, this is a little more inspirational. The killer application here is an un-styled way of presenting interiors that potentially could kickstart you to upping your quality-of-living without excess expenditure.

There’s nods to the escalating appreciation of classic furniture, but you won’t be cajoled into feeling inferior over a handmade oak table, custom carved in a remote Scandinavian village, or presented with mammoth yards you’ll never own. A fine merger of lifestyle elements, ‘name’ contributions from the likes of Mike Mills and Geoff McFetridge, next to a classical layout, solid balance of words and pictures, plus no shortage of ideas carries a certain consistency.

www.apartamentomagazine.com


Vanity Fair

Since relaunching in 1981 after it was cancelled during the great depression ‘Vanity Fair’ is underpinned by one fundamental mystery — whom is it actually targeted toward? Those celeb-heavy cover photos and layouts, plus regular jewellery supplements point to the females or the ultra-ultra-ultra metrosexual. It can make a read on the train attract glances of derision, but stand tall, because this, with its lengthy exposes and reportage may be the ultimate public transport read.

A polar opposite to the quick fixes of this capital’s atrocious free newspapers, writing from the likes of Peter Biskind and Christopher Hitchens satisfyingly sprawls with a continue instruction, to the back pages. Photoshoots are expensive and expansive, technically superior and studded with stars too. It goes without saying that Graydon Carter is a very well connected man.

www.vanityfair.com


Sang Bleu

Pushing the remit of what constitutes a magazine here, ‘Sang Bleu’ is a publication of extremes. Dealing with tattoos and body modification, it eschews the lurid skin shots of the usual tattoo art publications for something far more refined, but without compromising tattoo culture in the slightest. And while it ain’t cheap, this Swiss creation is big in stature — on missing the release date for volume III, Editor-in-Chief Maxime Buechi decided to merge it with volume IV, clocking in at 500+ pages, filled with gatefolds, supplements and even a CD. It’s a definite labour-of-love.

A heavy focus on fonts, with Max running the BP foundry, dense blocks of explorative texts and the black and white looks periodically interrupted by colour blasts of tattoo flash, means it’s an arresting experience, even if your interest in the covered subcultures is minimal. Don’t question how a project like this can be profitable — just appreciate it while it’s here.

www.sangbleu.com


The Economist

Maintaining an oft-imitated advocacy journalistic approach, with a perpetual consistency and reliability, plus a discreet sly wit creeping in that rarely misses its mark or hits heights of whimsical self-indulgence, ‘The Economist’ is the one that hasn’t dropped off yet. Like all the best periodicals it leaves the reader enlightened, and masters of summary that they are, sums up some heavy-duty business and political theory with a brevity that’s far from smart-arsed. Reportage and criticism is naturally, of the highest standard, but with a history stretching back to 1843, by their own description it doesn’t technically qualify for inclusion here, with an insistence on calling itself a newspaper despite the glossy pages.

A devoted following is quick to write in to correct, complement or lambast, ensuring there’s a certain interactivity to the proceedings. Most wouldn’t take the time to squint at the contents on a monitor, but stapled and in your hands, there’s a week to slowly digest it before the next installment. With a comprehensive in-house style guide, there’s less showboating from contributing writers — rather an attempt to achieve a steady tone, and a refusal to treat its readers like imbeciles, ‘The Economist’ is very necessary. As weekly reads go, it isn’t cheap, but if you can the daily newspaper purchases and consolidate the cash, this is a smarter buy.

www.economist.com


‘Sup Magazine

Available semi-regularly and free of charge providing you keep an eye on the scattered handful of pickup spots, ‘Sup Magazine’ is New York-based, but with a strong UK editorial presence, it manages to scoop up the best in terms of young journalists and photographers.

The editorial decisions are appropriately offbeat and you’ve got to salute a magazine with Carl Craig on the cover. Previously, ‘Sup’ looked decent, championing emerging bands, artists and writers, but with issue 16, the art direction became more refined, resulting in the fine object it is today. If you’re running a title with a pricetag, you really should be striving to top this one for content and value for money — more of a challenge considering team Sup…’ made the unorthodox choice to make it complementary.

www.supmag.com


Fantastic Man

Too many hetrosexual minds behind a men’s fashion magazine would sink it. It would be a mass of chambray shirts, chinos and workboots. That’s all good, but it’s wearable basics not necessarily fashion. From the minds behind ‘Butt,’ ‘Fantastic Man’ is run by people that can commission a page long ode to the perfect white tee, but celebrates the more avant-garde side of clothing too.

Referring to interview subjects as Mr. and instigating some of the cleverest shoots of any periodical, the devil is in the details — ‘Style Notes and Other Matters’ accompany conversations, ‘Word of the Season’ is announced early on, ‘The List’ changes in theme each issue and is a compulsive read imbuing the whole shebang in a clinical tinge of camp that annihilates the menswear competition. Recently switching from saddle stitch to a perfect binding, somehow the price has dropped too. ‘Fantastic Man’ is contrary like that.

www.fantasticman.com


The Believer

Something of a cerebral bench press, ‘The Believer’ is from the ‘McSweeney’s stable, and having run for several years now, it’s suffered some flak for allowing advertising in its previously ad-free pages, provided they fit with the magazine’s literary tone. There’s a lot of text in ‘The Believer’ and the occasional themed issue, but by and large, it’s accessible, and with each issue the reader emerges enlightened. Whether they thought they’d need educating on the cultural history of the wing chair is another thing.

Embarrassing encounters are relived and great minds correspond — ‘Short Takes On Books That Don’t Exist’? Charles Burns on cover illustration duties? Yes please. From a design perspective, it’s all steeped in a certain traditionalism, with illustrations of contributors accompanying a piece and a full list of what’s discussed preempts an article, and like ‘Fantastic Man’ there’s more than enough seemingly throwaway detail tucked into each page to confer regular purchase.

www.believermag.com


Free & Easy

It would be too easy to punctuate a top ten with non-English language releases, particularly Japanese niche publications, so only one has been retained here – ‘Free & Easy,’ a magazine for the ‘young and young-at-heart’ that merrily panders to fans of ancient workwear, cars, furniture and even strange pets. If you’ve ever wanted to dress like Dustin Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men’ or wanted to source a manufacturer remaking depression-era t-shirts, you’ve come to the right place.

Pathologically comprehensive, this paean to older male style has been running for years, but now the hipsters seem to be trailing (a good ten feet behind it has to be said), the workwear bandwagon, ‘Free & Easy’ is here for the duration, but it’s readership must be burgeoning.

Extra points for running their own ‘Rugged Museum,’ regularly featured with surreal captions summarizing certain visitors. How the team gathers enough information and imagery to put this out monthly is staggering. Plus Managing Editor Minoru Onazato always precedes each issue with a missive titled, “Dear Readers” — it’s debatable as to whether English language is necessary. In terms of information it’s clearly a goldmine (with an authentic pair of denims to match that era), but that language barrier gives the magazine an extra mystique.

www.east-r.co.jp

0 thoughts on “PAPER VS. PIXEL — WHEN WRITING ABOUT MAGAZINES GOES BAD

  1. real glad to see/hear that folks are still aware of LSD…

    There should be a qualification about English language ‘zines… cuz Huge should be there for it’s content. It’s changed allot over the years with each issue taking a theme nowadays. Far more satisfying than 99% on the market… too bad they don’t do English inserts like High Fashion – another brilliant fashion mag.