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In the face of a global pandemic, will print magazines (finally) die?

words by: Natasha Marsh
May 31, 2020

As someone who’s worked at magazines for most of their career – and spent half the time at print magazines – I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about the effects of COVID-19 on print workers. Print fashion magazines run entirely on large scale photo shoots, features with high profile celebrities and coverage of red carpet events. So what happens when all this is stripped away from the industry, will magazines survive?

It’s safe to say the big publishers, Conde Nast, Meredith, and Hearst are less affected than niche, smaller publications. The virus could push already struggling brands to the end. The question is whether the pandemic will lead to the death of print itself. To understand this concept, we must look at a few things: the purpose of a fashion magazine, the staff, free access to a physical magazine, and growing voices on social media. 

The purpose of a fashion magazine

Fashion magazines sell fantasies. They attract readers on consumeristic dreams, showcasing glossy images of supermodels and celebrities between advertisements for $50,000 watches and $4,000 handbags. The Coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders have hindered those dreams. As a result, fashion magazines are struggling to produce and redefine their purpose in this era. If they continue to generate this type of fake reality, they risk feeling out of sync and tone-deaf to global readers in isolation, rapidly tracking public health updates and economic shifts. 

If fashion magazines can no longer sell a fantasy, does it even have a purpose? 

 

The employees’ need for a magazine

Editors and stylists are forced to forgo jet set photo shoots, in-person interviews and coverage of red carpet events. It takes a village to create the perfect photo shoot: bringing together an army of make-up artists, hair stylists, photo assistants, editors, publicists, stylists, stylist assistants, talent, photographers, and various supplies sometimes traveling from other countries. Without photo shoots or events, hundreds of people have lost their jobs. 

As you know, fashion magazines are not just about fashion. They tend to discuss culture, current events, politics, sports, work & money, sex & wellness, and food & drink. Without any sports to cover, a journalist employed by publisher Meredith, stated “some sportswriters have been temporarily reassigned to news desks and other beats.” Other beats, or topics, are still being reported on but with more emphasis on the virus. Journalists who have worked hard to build up their beat and portfolio, see it suffering as they go temporarily absent from their expertise. 

 

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If magazines no longer have fresh and timely stories, what value would we get from reading them? 

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Gregory, a writer at Hearst, whose titles include Men’s and Women’s Health, Esquire, and HGTV Magazine, discussed his concerns on layoffs, “people are getting laid off, instead of feeling pressure to take on their work – entire columns are being temporarily cut.” 

If fashion magazines lose important writers and photo shoot staff, do they have the bandwidth to create buzzing content?

 

Access to a physical magazine

Long were the days you would receive fashion magazines by mail or purchase a glossy at your local drugstore. Even if you didn’t subscribe, these stylish books would find their way to you at doctors offices, dentists, hospitals, and just about every other waiting room or lobby you found yourself in. With stay-at-home orders in full force, many have lost access to magazines. 

 

If readers no longer have free access to print magazines in public spaces, would they even read them?

 

Growing voices on social media

Instagram, Twitter, vlogs, blogs, and podcasts have become the new way to digest content. Readers are thirsty for instant stories and gossip and are more satisfied finding it online for free, and at ease. Once the information is out there, it’s shared quickly and readers move on to the next viral story. These days no one wants to wait a month to read a story when they can read it as it happens, in real time. 

If magazines no longer have fresh and timely stories, what value would readers get from reading them? 

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Although many magazines have closed or halted production in response to the virus, there are two sides to every story. And print magazines are working to fight back.

Print media is still the best way to show off designs. Whether it’s a large printed ad in a magazine or billboard, or a small flyer, businesses budget a significant amount for print. If print was really dying, companies would feel no need to add print budgets. Print is tangible, easier to cut through clutter and beautifully resonates with readers. 

Statistics prove screen time is up nearly 50% among American phone users during COVID-19. “Print gives the consumer a break from the intensity of the digital world,” Hearst Magazines president Troy Young shared with The New York Times. And the fact that the articles in the issue are well researched and are selected to the final edit says, “this is important, this has a place in culture, so take a moment to read and think about this,” Young concluded.

Editors and magazine staff are excited to exercise out-of-the-box ideas. The New York Times also spoke to Laura Brown, editor-in-chief of Instyle, “as an executive editor, you need to read the room constantly,” she said. “Now we need to read it not just every day, but every hour and minute, registering appetites and anxieties that are constantly changing.” 

Dazed, a popular London-based magazine, is also thinking about reading the room. They have decided to not print a physical issue for their summer edition, but instead grant access to it online. The team plans to involve readers in content, by having them “submit interview questions for different subjects on Instagram,” founder Jefferson Hack stated. 

Print magazines have multiple factors working against them but they also have highly creative individuals leading and adapting to change. 

Of course, the decline of the print magazine is old news. Whether you measure – sales, number of staff employees, number of active print magazines, or ad revenues – we are bound to conclude that print magazines are experiencing a dire situation, and only time will show a steady decline or resurgence as the pandemic continues. 

 

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