Year In Review

If you believe everything you read in the papers, 2006 was the year that magazines died.

Actually, strike that part in the last sentence about "read in the papers." Nobody reads papers anymore, or so the papers would have you believe. Wow, I'm going all meta on your asses only one paragraph in.

Anyway, many words were written over the course of 2006 about how magazines will eventually go the way of the dodo bird, about how young readers would sooner glean information from the side panels of pizza boxes than from a publication. Some of the news seemed to bear this conclusion out, like the shocking (to me, anyway) decision to shutter FHM, a mag that seemed to be on sure footing editorially and, um, publishingly. A first-half 2006 circulation of 1.3 million is still kind of a lot, isn't it?

Factor in a dollop of brickheaded boosterism from the MPA ("Magazines: like Cheerios for your mind!!!") and one can see why pundits far and wide have started writing obituaries for the entire medium.

Me, I see lots of people reading magazines. I see them reading magazines on the subway. In food courts. On airplanes and in cubicles and on the toilet. I am basing the latter conclusion on my own personal experience, rather than illicit observation.

I like magazines. You like magazines. That guy standing right next to the airplane gate, with a cell phone clipped to his belt and a hipster t-shirt? He likes magazines, especially Details.

In short, magazines ain't going anywhere. Nonetheless, as Time's Person of the Year -- please leave congratulatory fruit baskets on my doorstep -- I figured I'd pass along a few tips to both the budding and established publishing barons out there. Take these suggestions with a grain of salt, as they come from a guy who knows nothing about the financial realities of the magazine business and spends most of his time at home wearing bunny slippers, attempting to avoid contact with other human beings.

1. Go niche: People tend to associate themselves with things they like -- a novel concept, I know -- or things with which they have to deal on a day-to-day basis. That's why titles like Car and Driver and Arthritis Today make much more sense as ongoing entities than does the next "lifestyle publication for young professionals" that will burn through tens of millions of dollars before its inevitable euthanasia.

2. Launch all soft and fuzzy: If I'm starting a magazine -- and I'd no sooner do this than embrace an all-yam diet -- I debut with a newsy, gossipy Web site about six months before its print launch. Who the hell knows if anybody will pay attention, but the Web is the ideal place to refine a voice and define a brand in advance of the newsstand rollout.

Along these lines, I just checked the URL for Conde Nast's new Portfolio business mag, only to find that it features little beyond a brief intro, ad info and an "exclusive" video clip that crashed my 'puter. They've hired, what, 720 journalists already? If they're not writing/reporting for the site, what exactly are they being paid to do about now?

3. Fire everybody: I imagine Time Inc. employees aren't especially keen about the cost-attentive McKinsey consultants currently nosing around the office. That said, take a look at the masthead of just about any major publication. Hello, personnel bloat.

There's no way you can convince me that most of these titles can't make do with fewer in-house people. How many art designers and vice associate deputy editors can one mag have? Do you need separate edit and design staffs for both a magazine and its Web site? Fire the bastards! Fire 'em all! Fire 'em on Christmas Eve and cast aspersions on their table manners!

If I'm running a magazine -- and again, I'd much rather nail-gun my hand to a railroad trestle -- I keep a core staff in-house and farm out most of the writing to freelancers. This model works pretty much everywhere but in the U.S. Are we that desperate for people to keep us company?

A few other random thoughts, before I close the book on Magazine Rack 2006 and set about accidentally gift-wrapping my foot:

Magazines I like more than I did at this time last year:Rolling Stone (about 600 percent sharper and more provocative on the feature front, though its record reviews still read like they were written by 58-year-olds who once caught Foghat at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds), New York (the only regional thing about it is its moniker; its stable of feature writers compares favorably with that of any other title), TV Guide (this is the only MR column I've written that, with the benefit of hindsight, comes across as unfair and truly weenie-ish; TV Guide has evolved tremendously over the course of the year, smartly playing to its readers' enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes morsels on all things TV.)

Magazines I like less than I did at this time last year:Entertainment Weekly (too many shilly cover stories on big studio movies and not enough features on below-the-radar personalities, like the involving piece on child-actor-made-good Jackie Earle Haley), Red Herring (maddeningly inconsistent from issue to issue), Newsweek (the mag's habit of inventing trends has become quite tiresome; stick to giving me the "news" of the "week").

Best story: Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated piece on Pat Tillman. Both a stunning indictment of his military superiors and an emotional portrait that eschewed cheap emotion, if that makes any sense. I read it before bed and woke up the next morning still thinking about it.

Worst story: "Whither Britney's Vagingo? A Ms. Dialectic, with Camille Paglia, Janeane Garofalo and Nancy Grace." Okay, this story didn't actually happen. I just don't want anybody getting any ideas, is all.

Favorite other 2006 crap: "The Wire" (tee vee), "Cars" (flick), The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World (nonfiction), King Dork (fiction), "The River in Reverse" (album), "Modern Times" (non-favorite thing that sucked -- really, just because a record was made by BOB DYLAN doesn't mean we have to like it), Pinstriped Blog (Web site), Joel Stein (columnist), Garry Trudeau (hero), Thanksgiving (holiday), nap (pastime), soap dish (shower furnishing).

That's it for me. Happy holidays, y'all. Take it easy on the nog.

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