On the 266 anniversary of magazines in America, here’s a couple of predictions about their future

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read this blog that I agree with my friend Steve Rubel’s observation that magazines aren’t disappearing — despite the proliferation of new media. It may come as a surprise to Steve that he picked the eve of the 266th anniversary of the magazine in America to make his observation. Andrew Bradford, a printer in Philadelphia, published American Magazine on February 13, 1741, exactly three days before Ben Franklin published a magazine with a considerably longer title.*

Steve observes correctly that new media rarely supplants old media — check out all those tree-killing books O’Reilly publishes on Web 2.0-enabling technology topics. While we only have 24 hours in a day, what’s taking place on the media landscape is not necessarily a zero-sum game in time, attention or even advertising dollars. (I write this as I am watching TV. Online initiatives can come from IT or corporate communications, direct marketing or promotional departments, not always advertising media budgets.)

On this 266th anniversary of the magazine in America, it’s tempting to underestimate a future role for magazines when Jeff Jarvis and others are pointing to the “we’re no longer a print business” manifesto of IDG’s Collin Crawford as must reading. I agree. It’s must reading. But I’ve heard IDG executives declare the same thing since 2000 or so. I was on the board of American Business Media several years ago when we changed its name from American Business Press — for precisely the reason Collin points out. Even then, less than 50% of the revenues of a typical business-to-business media company came from advertising appearing in print.

Very few business-to-business media executives would say they’re in the magazine business. And, frankly, that’s a good thing. As I believe the magazine format is not the best vessel for the type of ever changing data that is collected and disseminated by business-to-business media companies. Lots of magazines will die. But, frankly. That’s been par for the course since 1741. Both Bradford’s and Franklin’s magazines failed after a few issues, but later Franklin started the Saturday Evening Post which, despite a few gaps and through a few different iterations and ownerships, has had a little longer run.

On the 266th anniversary of the magazine in America, here are two personal predictions I have about the future of magazines:

1. As long as there are coffee tables, there will be magazines.

2. No one at Conde Nast** (Jeff’s former employer) will ever publish a manifesto in which they say, “Let’s shake off the image of being in a beleaguered print industry.”

*Fraklin’s was called The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle. Date source: The Magazine in America, 1741-1990.

**I am referring to Conde Nast, not the broader media holdings of its owners.

(Longtime readers of this blog know that I usually point to this interview with MediaLife Magazine when this topic returns.)

Bonus Link: Paul Cloutier at 8020 Publishing, responding to Josh Norem’s prediction that magazines are going away observes: “The web is not going to make magazines go away, it is going to make them better.”

Bonus Link II: Scott Karp says: “The efficiencies of digital distribution of information will soon reduce print publishing to an art form. There will be plenty of artistic reasons to publish in print, but for news and business information, it will become an utterly irrational undertaking.” I only disagree with Scott on one point. I think the direction publishing must take to achieve the status of art form is “rising,” not “reducing.”

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