The Problem with The Magazine

Marco Arment’s ‘The Magazine’ is an ambitious foray into digital publishing, full of insightful, well written and entertaining writing, and I respect it greatly1. But there are fundamental problems which need addressing, especially with The Loop’s magazine release today.

Is there such thing as ‘too niche’?

The Magazine has never been a technology magazine, and it never will be. It’s a publication aimed at technology enthusiasts but from day one has covered niche topics and personal stories. In fact, the editors ask for pieces to be written as a bildungsroman2, so that an insightful story can be developed. However this leads to a worry of mine: articles are too ‘out there’, too niche, and have recently failed to grab my wandering attention. When I get into an article, I always enjoy it, even if it is about something I never would usually read about, but these niche topics have to compete with the entirety of the web, which happens to sit right alongside it on the iPad. They just aren’t enticing, and there are other pieces I’d rather read, and topics I’d prefer to study.

The Magazine is in danger of having readers deciding they simply do not care, and want to read something else more specific to their interests. There really needs to be a leash which writers should be tied down to. Albeit an unusually long leash, allowing them to explore new and innovative topics, but one which will hold them back from alienating even the most avid readers.

Beautiful, but easily copied

Few can criticize The Magazine’s look and feel. It’s sleek, tidy, and extremely readable. It’s simplicity, however, is as much of an issue as it is an attraction. When ‘The Loop’ magazine was released, there were instant complaints that it looked just too much like The Magazine, and it does – I was concerned at first glance. But this isn’t Jim Dalrymple and Peter Cohen’s fault. The Magazine’s design has no real stand out design feature3 which sets it apart from other publications looking to take their place within someone’s Newsstand. If a designer sets out to create a digital magazine, with a sliding side panel holding a list of articles, they’d come up with something very similar to The Magazine. It’s so easy to copy, and I don’t think we should be criticizing The Loop for being to similar as by trying to differentiate themselves, it’s very possible they would have produced something inferior.

Should I read?

Reading The Magazine is an education. The diversity, while worrying, is fascinating. I doubt many people will be able to read all the published pieces in their busy lifestyles4, and I don’t blame them. The Magazine is just settling, with recurring writers and a growing readership, but I worry that it’s going to become lost in many new digital magazines which take the simple and copyable design, and have a narrower, but more accessible portfolio of writing.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I also love the way it is run, how much they pay, the strict editorial process, it seems to work really well, and assures consistently high quality across articles
  2. A bildungsroman is a ‘coming of age’ novel. Notable literary examples are To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Kite Runner.
  3. Except the hamburger, of course. (Hold down the menu icon in the top left)
  4. I can’t, and I’m not that busy. I have a huge backlog from months ago, and really need to catch up
  • I am fascinated about how you have put your finger precisely on our editorial philosophy and found it a negative, in the nicest possible way with the best possible exegesis of your logic.

    Marco started the Magazine to offer writing that wasn’t precisely found everywhere else. Over time, we’ve evolved to what you’re saying: trying to find subjects for a readership that is inured to and maybe tired of finding an infinity of topics (often rehashed) that have a specific appeal to their existing interests. We’re billed now as for “curious people,” and that’s true. Without putting us in the same league as the New Yorker, I would argue that is what it does well and we aspire to: to surprise people even with ordinary subjects, and to enlighten people about stuff they simply don’t know about.

    I’m completely supportive of Jim’s The Loop magazine and its content because it’s a natural extension of his site. He has an audience and is bringing them something more that is discrete (a set of articles instead of continuous publishing) and differently focused than the news he runs on the site.

    TypeEngine, which drives his magazine, borrows liberally from a lot of the best ideas of how to present content simply, and Marco doesn’t have a patent on that (nor would he try to have one). I do wish that they had chosen some navigation and presentation metaphors that were distinctly different, partly because it doesn’t provide enough differentiation for their customers — the Magazine is best known in this category at the moment, and thus it is easy to confuse and dismiss things that look like it as a copy cat or something they already know (and may subscribe to). I expect TypeEngine will branch out with more navigational ideas in the future to supplement this one.

    • Nathan Liu

      Thank you for your comments, they make great sense and clear up a few of my questions with the philosophy. The Magazine absolutely surprises and enlightens, I just sometimes find it hard to pinpoint articles’ relevance.

      I appreciate The Magazine and will continue to subscribe and read (even if a long time after they’ve been published!) but I worry that the market could become saturated very quickly, and I don’t want to see The Magazine swamped.

      • Relevance is an excellent question! We’re not precisely timely, but we’re trying to tap into the kinds of general things people are interested in now. We’re still feeling that out: people seem to react very strongly (generally positively) to specific articles, rather than entire issues.

        I look to the more traditional magazines that have great non-fiction about how this shakes out. The New Yorker (again, sorry) runs articles about stuff that happened six months to decades ago, but they make it feel absolutely present, as if it’s relevant at the moment. We want to capture that in a bottle, too.

  • There’s another element to publications like The Magazine, NSFWCORP, and The Loop—an audience fully aware of its inability to digest everything that writers and editors produce, but want an easy way to encourage its continued production.

    I spent the first half of my career in public radio, where this idea forms the bedrock of most stations’ fundraising strategies. I probably *shouldn’t* enjoy every single episode of This American Life, nor will I ever get to hear every episode. And for every TIL, there are dozens of fringe series that many folks might not ever hear.

    However, I donate because I want to ensure that they’re still there when I’m ready to enjoy all those productions. I also donate because I know that for every person like me, there are about nine others who either can’t afford to pay or don’t want to pay.

    Putting publications like these into the App Store makes it significantly easier for publishers to ask for help and to consciously choose not to pursue advertising. In the tech world, we’re so accustomed to the idea of the “category killer” that we have to relearn the ability to honor editorial abundance.

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