These are not easy times to be a journalist. Once mighty institutions are shedding jobs like confetti at a ticker tape parade, replacing established reporters with 21-year-old interns. The publications that are actually growing squeeze investigative reporting between cat videos and lists of the zaniest hats Mayim Bialik wore on Blossom. As a new-ish writer desperate to break through you feel a bit like Jack Dawson trying to win tickets for the Titanic.
“This is the single most interesting moment for writing since the invention of the printing press,” columnist Sarah Jane Growe told my Ryerson class of would-be writers. That makes it sound exciting. Frankly, I want to cower and hide until the dust settles and the Great Upheaval is over.
Things are especially bad for magazines, the publishing medium I feel closest to. Consumers still buy them, despite competition from tablets and the Internet, but it’s the advertisers who have cold feet. It’s them, not readers, who keep magazines solvent. While niche publications rely on their devoted niches, mainstream publications with a mass audience have disappeared one by one. It didn’t matter how many creepy, tabloid-ish covers Tina Brown oversaw (Michele Bachmann’s bug-eyes, imaginary middle-aged Princess Diana)–it wasn’t enough to save Newsweek.
One happy exception is fashion magazines. Ad Age reports the ad sale numbers are in for the big style publications’ September issues and the news is very good. Elle will publish their biggest issue to date with 442 ad pages. Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire will also use up their fair share of trees with 397 and 246 pages of ads, respectively. For all three this is a 10-14 per cent increase in pages from last year. InStyle and Vogue also topped their page numbers from 2012, but the latter still falls short of 2007’s gargantuan September issue (727 ad pages), subject of the documentary The September Issue. Surely Anna Wintour didn’t plan it specifically for the filmmakers…
Despite the hopes of frustrated Republicans, the U.S. economy continues to improve although it’s gotten better for Condé Nast readers rather than for Readers Digest Americans. “There’s a lot of money coming in to the U.S.,” says Michael Clinton, president-marketing and publishing director at Hearst Magazines. “In the global luxury/fashion world, there’s a growing perception that there is growth in the American market because the Euro Zone is still struggling and China is leveling off.”
The fact that advertisers are still throwing their money at magazines, despite so much competition online, is a remarkable testament to the loyalty readers feel to the historic mastheads of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire. “As much as we are in a digital world, where the audience really aggregates in a big way is print. The consumer proof point continues to be that the print brand is driving it all,” says Clinton.
But it still leaves the question why September? Traditionally, the first issue of autumn was when publications and designers unveiled the must-have looks for fall, the ideal season for coats, jackets, longer skirts, and cozy accessories. But nowadays you don’t need to wait for Mario Testino’s photos of models jumping around to appear on the newsstands–if you’re so inclined you can see entire collections on style.com as soon as they’re done. With the advent of Instagram it’s even quicker. A picture of an outfit can be on the Internet while the model’s still on the runway.
The plethora of information is partly responsible for the continued tradition of the September issue. You could look through thousands of photographs of every runway show ever, but who has the time or interest? Instead, wouldn’t you rather Grace Coddington sort through the collections and select the big stories from the gimmicky trends? More than pretty pictures, magazines offer expertise, an informed voice to say what’s important and what’s not. That’s what magazines’ brands are all about.
How can fashion magazines get away with selling so many advertisements when in other areas, on TV and before films at movie theatres, ads are something to complain about and try to ignore? The dirty secret is ads are part of the fun. September issues are like the Superbowl for fashion people. And, like Superbowl ads, the bigger the better. Aware some consumers only buy the September issues, advertisers pull out all the stops, creating fabulous fantasies that rival the actual editorials.
While the sleekness of a tablet is convenient, the abundant thickness of September issues are a testament to their importance. (Last year’s Vogue was an inch–I just measured with my fingers.) Their weight represents the heady history you buy into with six dollars. They may weigh down your purse, but they make up for it with inspiration. For the time being at least, September issues survive because they represent what Tumblr and Instagram can’t–not pictures of trends, but the feeling of trust.