Of physicality and niches
Over the weekend, The Guardian covered Printout, a bimonthly gathering of print magazine enthusiasts. At a recent event, about 100 people brought their favorite independent magazines to show, share and discuss.
Although the article tries to draw a bit of a comparison with the iPad, the organizers saw less of a divide. Co-founder Jeremy Leslie noted:
"People like to say, 'This is dead and that is living. It's not as simple as that. As with most new forms, digital will succeed in various aspects. Print will continue to succeed in others."
Of course, it helps that the magazines they love are smaller, independent and creatively less restricted than most mass-market titles. If you're going to compete on physicality, it helps to offer something physical to remember.
Before Conde Nast acquired it, the indie Wired was oversized and read like a voyage of discovery. Forty-five years ago, Rolling Stone started as a newsprint tabloid, as counter-culture as its founder intended.
This isn't a lament; things change. The bigger a magazine aspires to be, the more its owners care about things like the size of newsstand racks and the cost of delivering an oversized publication.
So it comes as no surprise that Steve Watson, also a co-founder, pointed to "lack of distribution" as a problem for independent magazines. Even here, the advent of new technology can help.
At O'Reilly Media's one-day "mini TOC" in Chicago, J.C. Gabel and Josh Schollmeyer talked about their efforts to revive The Chicagoan. They print only sporadically (twice a year is their plan), but their launch issue sold out after they used Twitter to spread the word about where the limited-run magazine might be found.
Of course, you still have to offer a magazine someone can connect with. Think about how Printout attendee Chloe McLaren described KnockBack, an alternative woman's magazine: "You can read it, still eat carbs and not wear dresses." Now that's a niche.