In the mid-20th century a group of French scholars developed an approach to history they called la longue durée— roughly, “the long term”—in which they studied extended patterns and trends instead of isolated events or individual lives. Lately we’ve begun to wonder if there might be a “longue durée” in magazine publishing; that is, patterns and trends that hold true over long periods—multiple decades or even centuries.
Publishers seldom think in such extended timeframes. The industry is myopic by nature—magazine managers see life through a window about three or four months wide. The most diligent publishers develop five year plans and analyze performance in year-to-year comparisons, but it’s pretty rare for anyone to look forward or backward as much as 10 years, let alone 100. Lord knows, it’s hard enough to make it through a given day!
Obsession with technology can cloud a publisher’s vision, too. Today’s magazine industry is singularly focussed on disruption caused by digital hardware and software. The result, understandably, is that nowadays technology gets more attention in the planning process than human nature, despite the fact that human nature is much more stable and predictable than the evolution of technology.
Here are nine recurring patterns and long-term trends in American mass media. We present the facts… the “so what?” is up to you. Whether the patterns will repeat, whether the trends will continue, how they may change—those are questions that you’re as qualified to address as anyone else. Take a look at the following list. Does it contain useful indicators of human nature? Or isolated instances that will never come again?
1. Screens steal readers. The disruptive effects of digital technology on print are merely a continuation of a longer trend. TV put Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post out of business in the 1960s. The emergence of cable in the ’80s accelerated decline and consolidation in the American newspaper industry, changes that were already apparent in the mid-1950s to interested observers like A. J. Liebling. A quick glance at the American Time Use Survey or similar research shows that the screens in our homes—television, computers, game platforms, phones, and tablets—distract and capture audience attention more effectively than print. Researchers refer to this as picture primacy. One consequence is an ever-rising cost of reader acquisition in print.
2. Media consumption keeps expanding… attention spans keep shrinking. The successful development of a functioning blivet may be the greatest achievement of modern media. Days are still 24 hours long, but Americans somehow continue to cram increasing amounts of media consumption into them. What enables this is so-called media multitasking—the use of more than one medium at the same time. You’d think that this trend would have an endpoint, but we haven’t reached it yet. Cast another distraction into the lives of the today’s consumers, and they’ll rise to the bait. It helps if the bait is in small pieces: the corollary to media multitasking is reduced attention spans.
3. Great media brands can endure . Thousands and thousands of American magazines have died since the first one closed in April, 1741, and fate carried off good and bad alike. But let’s look for a moment at the ones that have survived the longest. The list includes the New England Journal of Medicine (1812), Scientific American (1845), Harper’s (1850) the Atlantic (1857), and the Nation (1865). What these venerable titles share in common is not a commitment simply to serving readers, but to serving readers with consistently appropriate, high quality content. Lip service to “meeting and exceeding reader expectations” is commonplace. Actually doing the job is rare… but potentially rewarding. By the way, newspapers that have existed since we were colonies, like the Hartford Courant or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, are good illustrations of the value of long-term media brand-building.
4. “Emerging technology will kill us!” The notion that new gadgets threaten existing media is an old refrain. When the spread of TV began to affect the movie market, the studios were convinced they were doomed. When cable TV began to lure viewers from networks, similar palpitations of concern hit the networks. Here at the Magazinist we think that print will survive the Internet the same way the studios and the networks survived earlier threats—by adapting to changing market conditions. Environmental shifts in media can seem cataclysmic… but it’s rare for a successful medium to vanish altogether. After all, there are still profitable companies selling vinyl records.
5. Price barriers hide huge audiences. Here’s a pattern that has been repeated numerous times in American publishing. First, a technical innovation allows enterprising publishers to reduce cost to readers dramatically. Then the size of the audience at the reduced price turns out to be much larger than expected. This occurred in the 1830s with the “Penny Press,” in the 1840s with the first wave of American paperback books, after the Civil War with the first dime novels, in the 1890s with the emergence of modern magazines, and countless times in the 20th century as new media appeared and the price of content fell.
6. Successful brand-building is more valuable than response generation. Advertising specifically designed to increase brand awareness and preference began around 1900. Soon an interesting fact emerged: advertisers were willing to pay more to build brands than to generate direct sales. When advertising is evaluated by precise ROI, publishers often have trouble maintaining advertising rates. Advertising evaluated by increases in brand awareness and preference is less price-sensitive.
7. Investment in the next generation is profitable. Learning how to read is not quite the same thing as learning the joy of reading. Children who love to read buy more and more books and periodicals as they grow up. Waves of market expansion follow increased investment in childhood reading. For example: in the 1870s publishers launched a flurry of well-designed, well-edited, and engaging children’s magazines, including several from book publishers who wanted to build a long-term customer base. Twenty years later there was a surge of expansion in the market for books and periodicals, which we doubt was totally coincidental. This phenomenon has some side effects worth examining as well. Children who are read to are more successful when they start school… and kids who enjoy reading grow up to be better-informed citizens as well as good customers for publishers.
8. Good packages never die. It’s fascinating how often good forms can be resuscitated. Take, for example, Harper’s Weekly, founded in 1857. Harper’s Weekly was not the first great illustrated weekly but it was among the most successful, achieving 160,000 circulation by the early 1870s and an almost iconic status as the graphical record of its times. In 1936 Henry Luce’s Life harnessed the power of the photograph in almost exactly the same package—a large format, lavishly illustrated newsweekly—and it too became a runaway success. The differences between the two magazines are essentially superficial. Another example is the serial cliffhanger. Several hundred popular “story papers” were published in the 19th century, featuring melodramatic serials that left readers hanging in suspense from one weekly installment to the next. The formula was transferred lock, stock, and barrel to radio in the early 20th century. Romantic serials were often sponsored by companies like Proctor & Gamble and were called soap operas. Lo and behold, the same formula worked for TV, too.
9. Novelty tarnishes. “Novelty” and “innovation” share the same linguistic root, but their meanings are very different. There’s lots of novelty in the world, and it almost always proves ephemeral. Innovation can be a little harder to identify at first, but it lasts a lot longer. Publishers are often alarmed by novelty, but over the long haul novelty seldom justifies concern. We submit that when it comes to new technology, adoption rates aren’t as important as the subsequent rates of abandonment.
In business there usually isn’t much difference between wisdom and common sense… both are equally hard to find. That may be why some of these patterns and trends seem self-evident in summary. It almost goes without saying that the conclusions you draw are more valuable than the trends themselves. And it’s worth the effort to draw conclusions. Considering that the survival rates of American magazines aren’t much different today than they were in the 18th century, we wonder how many publishers doom themselves because they forget (or overlook) the past.
Our benediction comes from H. L. Mencken, who identified one of the greatest of all historical truths:
“No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
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