As we all know by now, the rise of digital technology killed the print industry. No one has time to read words printed last night, last week or last year.
At least, that’s what the experts said a few years ago. Now, amidst a decade-long wave of astonishingly high-quality, original and successful print magazines, they’ve changed their tune.
In its heyday, print was the most substantial and influential form of media. It didn’t just deliver the news—it bound communities and countries together. But as the 20th century unfolded, radio, television and cable began the fragmentation process that the Internet would accelerate into oblivion. The realization that all of the world’s words existed online, and that the vast majority of new ones would be published exclusively there, led many to believe print would be a total casualty of digital development.
Nearly 20 years after the dot-com bubble, it feels safe to say print is here to stay. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of premium print magazines. High-design, expensive titles like Delayed Gratification, Kinfolk, Monocle, Scenario and Love don’t represent the survival of an old print format; instead, they’re something entirely new. And they are popular because they serve a very real, important purpose in today’s media ecosystem.
Steve Watson is the founder of Stack, a new service that delivers subscribers a new premium print magazine every month. Here’s his take on print’s comeback, from an interview with Freunde von Freunden:
Digital media is so ubiquitous and we spend so much of our time on computers, in front of our screens. I think that print is finding a new role for itself. It is a process. Someone, I forget who, compared this whole process to horses. They did not go away after the car was invented. Their function just changed. Instead of being the best way to get around, they became symbols of luxury, leisure and affection.
Steve’s point is hard to argue. But the follow-up is a matter of debate: why? What new purpose has print found fit to fill in the 21st century media economy? The most popular answer, it seems, is its pace.
Delayed Gratification, a practitioner of what it calls “slow journalism,” poses as an antidote to the fleeting nature of a culture flooded with information and yet starved for much of anything informative. Print in the 21st century, it seems to say, will provide depth to digital media’s flash.
The founder of Kinfolk magazine, Nathan Williams, ascribes his company’s success to a similar phenomenon: an increased desire for slow living in these modern times.
"Most of our readers,” he told The Strait Times, “live a fast-paced lifestyle, but it creates an appetite and need for those moments of slowing down. Whether it's Sunday mornings with a newspaper and coffee or a summer vacation … the magazine is a venue for those types of discussions. It's refreshing.”
In today’s fleeting world, there’s real value in spending time with an object that refuses distraction, offering nothing to click, nothing to watch and nothing to do but read, and think. It’s tempting, and not incorrect, to argue that this is the reason for print’s rapid rebirth.
But it’s only a partial answer. There’s something else about digital content that’s often overlooked: When someone walks into your home, they have no way of knowing that you read a blog, or listen to a podcast. Reading the New York Times on your phone every day does nothing to help you signal your consciousness to the rest of the world.
That’s not meant to be shallow. We humans are social animals, and we organize into groups for survival. Identification and expression aren’t frivolous: they’re a key human need that help us form bonds, whether we like to admit it or not.
If you have an issue of, say, Scenario on your coffee table, you’ve communicated something very serious to all who walk through the door. The magazine’s description of its audience is made just as clear by its sophisticated style and luxurious feel: “SCENARIO is read by progressive people with a high degree of decision-making competence in their professional lives. They are people who work with knowledge, who make choices, and who desire the greatest possible insight into the current trends that will shape our society in the future.”
Scenario offers each issue’s articles on its website, but it seems safe to assume that the value its readership draws from the magazine lies more in the magazine itself. The value of print, in this case, is in its ability to help us express who we are, or who we aspire to become.
And so while the public showplace for print used to be the newsstand, that very economical way to display as many titles as possible, in as little space, today’s most popular titles are more likely to be found on proud display somewhere as stylish as the magazines themselves.
“Despite a relatively small circulation of 85,000,” writes Racked’s Kyle Chayka, “Kinfolk can feel surprisingly omnipresent. … Walk into a tasteful design store, carefully curated fashion boutique, or immaculate Airbnb loft anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to find its pristine pages lying in wait, the way bibles nestle in hotel drawers to comfort sinners.”
Why do all these stores eagerly stock these types of magazines? Surely not for the revenue alone—you rarely see more than a handful of them on display at once, lest they lose their elegance. Rather it seems likely that their value lies more in the signal they send to customers about the types of people who shop here. Displayed in a coffee shop or a hotel lobby, these magazines help customers identify with the businesses—and with themselves.