The Internet did not end up being the Information Superhighway but a country road with a lot of potholes, stop signs, detours, and you name it, says Ole Miss journalism professor Samir Husni. Magazines are the true information superhighway.
A nice, pithy, contrarian thought, and about what you would expect from someone whose trademark is Mr. Magazine and whose office is so jammed with magazines that he cant conduct an interview in it. As Memphis marks its 25th year, I have come to see Husni, one of the countrys most widely quoted magazine experts, to get some perspective. You have to like a professor whose research includes prowling around newsstands and who enlivens his lectures by showing slides of some of the more lurid new covers.
How, I wonder, is Memphis doing in the overall scheme of things?
Only one out of ten magazines stays in business for 10 years, Husni says. But once you reach the mature age of 10 you are sort of out of harms way. Twenty-five years in magazine life is a long, long time.
Is print media dying, as pundits claim (usually in print) every time a daily newspaper or magazine icon such as Life closes shop? Not even close, says Mr. zine. Television didnt kill it and the Internet probably wont either. There are 6,000 magazines now, compared to only 2,000 in 1980. (This eye-catching number, however, includes such one-shot specials as The Pure Evil of Al Gore and Swanks 200 Uncensored Sex Acts.)
In publishing, you cant exist in just one medium anymore, says Husni. Your magazine needs to send you to the Web, the Web needs to send you to TV, and TV needs to send you back to the magazine.
Many dot-com sites have a print magazine, he adds, and if you think the death rate in magazines is high, just look at the death rate in Web-site links.
Yes, Life died, and so did another old lion, McCalls. And Mad started taking advertising. But the last two years saw the birth of nearly 2,000 new titles including O (Oprah Winfreys magazine), Tailgate (hot trucks), and Yellow Rat Bastard (pop culture), not to mention Bark, Dig, Booty, Hustlers Jail Babes, and Asian Lace Jungle Girl (no explanation needed or better left to your imagination).
Do we detect a trend? Yes. Everything has more sex. Even Revolver, a music magazine, has a sex issue. American Woman, which is sold in grocery stores, gives you 12 new sex positions to achieve orgasm. So the sex magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, squeezed by the offerings at the check-out lines, are getting more pornographic, but when they go that way they run head-on into the Internet.
Oddly enough, Husni says the Internet is actually helping all magazines except the sex category, not least because magazines have found a way to sell advertising and most Internet sites have not.
A magazine will be fine as long as it has a willing audience who can afford the price of the magazine and of the advertised goods, he says. The biggest myth in our business is the so-called separation of church and state. Readers buy magazines just as much for the advertising.
Somewhat comforted about the future of print journalism by my visit to Oxford, I went to the Memphis public library the next morning to have a look at the past. Squinting at the 1976 editions of The Commercial Appeal on microfilm, I was struck by some of the same things that marred the first issues of this magazine: small type, black-and-white pictures, and an overall appearance as gray as February.
The biggest difference between then and now, though, was not the headlines, the datelines, or the editorial opinions. It was the advertising. Whether gambling has replaced shopping as a pastime is an interesting question. But there is no doubt that casinos have replaced department stores as an advertising bastion.
In 1976, the front section of the Sunday Commercial Appeal was basically brought to you by Goldsmiths, which ran 10 or more separate display ads, along with retailers such as Sears, J.C. Penney, Royal Furniture, and Havertys. Today, that section usually includes 10 color ads from Tunica casinos and three or four from department stores. Memphis magazine and The Memphis Flyer are big casino buys, too. Casinos are to Memphis publications what Budweiser is to pro sports and Proctor and Gamble is to soap operas.
The differences in editorial content are more subtle. For one thing, daily newspapers used to print a lot more national and international news and display it on the front page. As a reporter for UPI in Jackson, Mississippi, 20 years ago, I wrote snoozers about state legislators changing the law on truck weights. These almost always found their way into the first-off-the-press Missis-sippi edition of the CA, and now and then even made the front page. They fit the generally accepted definition of news.
For better or worse, UPI, the Mississippi early edition, and front-page stories about truck weights are no more.
News is no longer political events in capitals of the world, says Husni. Its things that affect your lifestyle.
I later made a career stop at the CAs Sunday Mid-South Magazine, which was killed in 1987. I noted with some satisfaction in February that the CA went to a smaller size which is more colorful, more magazinelike, and easier to handle.
Other trends are more troubling.
The local print media are proliferating in numbers but fighting for smaller pieces of the pie. The CAs daily circulation is down to 173,000. The daily Memphis Press-Scimitar closed in 1983 after losing a third of its circulation in a decade, but its 90,000 subscribers were more than the combined total today of this magazine and its sister publication, The Memphis Flyer. And where there were three local television stations in 1983, there are now five, putting on a combined 12 hours a day of what is loosely billed as news. Then theres cable, which was just getting off the ground 25 years ago.
We dont have readers out there, we have viewers, says Husni. The magazines job is to turn the viewer into a skimmer and, hope-fully, the skimmer will become a reader.
As this anniversary issue shows, Memphis has been a magazine for readers, publishing scores of stories of at least 5,000 words, which is roughly 10 times the length of the average newspaper story.
Nice work if you can get it and, of course, sell it.
[This article originally appeared in Memphis magazine.]