A Continuation of Publication History: Independent Magazines and the Intertwining of Print and Digital Formats
As print and digital formats become increasingly intertwined, the definition of a publication has become more fluid. Independent magazines, with their foundations in community and easily distributed content, allow for an examination of how publication history is adapting rather than dying, as commonly perceived. Publications that weave between print and digital formats promote better access to content and communities while supplying readers with personal choices for effectively consuming information. Considering attention in the digital age, independent magazines attract audiences through their non-committal collection of short stories, underdog stance, quality over quantity, and ability to provide a retreat from media noise. Through an analysis of Emergence, Oh Comely, and Rookie Magazines, I argue that independent magazines have a fluid definition that includes interactive information devices, technologies of the self through a representation of values, and community structures. For designers, this calls for a greater attention to detail as it is necessary to practice interdisciplinary methods with emerging formats but also calls for more experimentation on discovering how readers interact with intertwined publications.
As our options for reading formats become increasingly broader, our definition of a publication becomes more and more fluid. While a person can read a book in the traditional sense — paper bound together by glue, thread, or some combination of the two with a spine and cover — there are a plethora of ways to consume information through the action of reading in our current age. E-books are found on digital devices such as Kindles and iPhones, audiobooks are listened to during long car rides and commutes without having to see a single word, and newspapers provide videos to better tell a narrative that does not translate as well in print. Gretchen E. Henderson defines a book as “a portable storage system of information, as an interactive storytelling device…as both a product and process for cultivating and questioning literacies and knowledge systems” (2013, p. 29).While most people hold a book, they have a hard time considering it anything other than a book. However, while looking at a digital reading format, people tend to begin questioning its classification.
This perspective is particularly prominent in the magazine industry. The common phrase “print is dead” is often touted when considering this adjusting field, as the magazine business has adapted to rising postal costs, competing media outlets, and the monumental growth of the digital era. Although the magazine industry looks immensely different than fifty years ago, this does not mean that it is failing. It has simply adapted along with publication history as a whole.
An integral part of magazine history is in its redefinition, much like the book itself. While I hold a physical magazine in my hand, it is hard to consider it anything but a magazine. When I experience a magazine digitally, through all of its alternative interactive elements like video, animation, and scrolling, this definition may not feel as solid. But these publications are still branded just as they are: a magazine. This classification is seen in the headers of their websites, in their logos and wordmarks, and on their social media pages. In this observation, it could be argued that magazines have more gracefully intertwined print and digital formats into their definition than other forms of publications. Their structure — short-form, quick, easily disposable, timely, and very portable — aligns with digital format necessities, allowing the magazine industry to move fluidly in a new definition.
This intertwining of both print and digital formats in publication is important because of access. Not only does it grant access to readers in various parts of the world to many types of publications through the internet, but it also permits readers to choose the best way for them to consume information at any given time. Carrying a hardcover, 600-page book onto the subway is not the most pragmatic way of reading but having access to it on a mobile device lets the reader continue interacting with this information in boisterous environments. Those without the monetary privilege to explore several magazine titles can now read featured stories online and decide whether or not the content resonates with them before purchasing a print copy. The intertwining of print and digital formats allows readers to have accessible content while enabling readers to choose how they personally want to consume the information.
In this research, I aim to analyze three independent magazines — Emergence Magazine, Oh Comely Magazine, and Rookie Magazine — that publish both print and digital content to assess how the interweaving of these formats allows independent magazines to adapt to a multimedia world. I will observe the reasons behind using both formats and will consider the success of these independent magazines through audience attention in the oversaturated digital age. I will evaluate how magazines as publications are defined and how this affects the role of the designer.
Continuing on Henderson’s definition of a publication, three aspects provide strong factors in its classification: 1. A portable system of information; 2. An interactive storytelling device; and 3. A product for questioning knowledge systems in place (2013, p. 29).
Both print and digital publications are meant to be portable ways of consuming information, where reading spaces are chosen by readers. While there are some exceptions to the portability of a publication, it is most importantly a system of information. Through its content, layout, and design decisions, the creators of a publication determine the best way to give information to an audience and stay within those parameters throughout the work.
Interactive devices are commonly discussed in digital formats, especially in elements such as video, animation, and audio. However, print publications must also consider audience interactions, which can include how a page is turned, paper pullouts and gatefolds, and smaller booklets bound within larger pages. In both print and digital formats, these elements add to the existing narrative and encourage readers to become a part of the story.
Both print and digital publications are reminders of the importance of education. Through this access to information, readers are given the ability to continue learning and questioning knowledge systems. Education provides the ability to inquire and not simply accept any given idea. Publications bestow an opportunity for readers to continue learning how to look at the world through a critical and knowledgeable lens, especially when acknowledging the forms in which information is portrayed.
Badlands Unlimited, a publisher of e-books, paper books, and artist works in digital and print forms, considers a publication to be a dissolving artifact. Their website states that “historical distinctions between books, files, and artworks are dissolving rapidly” and that they “make books in an expanded field” (2018 para. 1). This focus on dissolution, Henderson says, might suggest that a publication was once “a solution, an answer, or at least, something solid” (2013, pp. 29–30). With the addition of digital formats and experiences, a publication itself no longer needs to be a tangible object. For example, many magazines distribute content through social media networks, supplementing their brand without producing any concrete objects. The experience of a publication — whether print providing a sense of credibility and emotional attachment or digital creating newer, more accessible ways of interacting with content — remains a critical part of a publication’s definition.
Considering the definitions of publications drawn out by Henderson and Badlands Unlimited, it is clear that both print and digital formats meet the criteria. With this definition set, I argue that digital publishing is not a deviation from publication history, but a continuation of it. Rather than declaring the publication industry to be dying, it is more effective to state that it is adapting.
As the definition of a publication becomes more fluid between digital and print formats, independent magazines are able to rapidly develop through greater access of self-publishing tools. Independent magazines are made and owned by a publisher, “occupying a zone of small-scale creative commercial publishing between DIY zines and mainstream niche consumer magazines” (Le Masurier, 2012, p. 384). These publications became more common during the mainstreaming of desktop publishing in the 1990s. With the lowered cost of the Apple Macintosh computer, the simplicity of desktop design programs, the internet as a tool for production, marketing, and distribution, and the higher availability of low-cost print houses meant that a greater amount of people had access to producing magazines than ever before (Le Masurier, 2012, p. 385). Access to these tools continues to become even more widespread today, with the addition of other publishing formats like social media.
While made for sale, the main goal for independent magazines is quality and expression of the self-publisher’s voice. Independent magazines are typically small enterprises “in order to retain creative control” (Le Masurier, 2012, p. 386). Many independent magazines avoid exterior corporate sponsorships to maintain this regulation of content.
Self-publishers of independent magazines are normally not objective bystanders and work within their communities to create content that is “relevant to those communities’ interests, presented in a manner that is meaningful to them and with their collaboration and support” (Atton & Hamilton, 2008, p. 187). Through these small circulations, niche communities become integral to the success of the publication. The independent magazine “becomes part of the culture, a way to develop the culture” (Le Masurier, 2012, p. 388).
These defining characteristics provide reasoning behind the choice of analyzing this particular type of publication for this research. Previously stated, magazines as a whole are seemingly more fluid in their intertwining of print and digital formats because of their structure of content. While this remains true for independent magazines as well, they also exist outside of the realm of producing solely for capitalistic gain, offering a larger cultivation of community and creativity. With the internet and social media proving to be popular areas for modern day self-expression, the decision for independent magazines to exist in both print and digital realms is a logical direction for the industry. This intention outside of profit also supplies an interesting observation of measuring the success of a publication through audience attention.
Attention as Success Measurement
A functioning magazine will always need to have an attentive readership. According to Klaus Krippendorf, “attention is the new currency” (2006, p. 14). In the digital era, there are so many ways to spend time, and success for a publication can be seen as being a chosen part of readers’ lives. In the Attention Economy: Understanding the new currency of business, Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck describe the need for audiences to curate what they give attention to:
“…if attention goes one place, then it can’t go another. As a consumer of information, I have to be very careful about my attention allocation…Once a moment’s attention is gone, it can never be brought back” (2001, p. 11).
They continue to suggest that people need to establish priorities because they often handle an overload of information; “there are more things to do than they have time and mental energy to do them” (2001, p. 20). Curation allows consumers to place attention only in their highly valued areas.
What is deserving of our attention when it comes to magazines? Davenport and Beck state that “people pay attention not only to things they have to pay attention to, but also what they want to pay attention to” (2001, p. 22). We consume information that aligns with or affects our values, relationship with self and identity, and sense of community. Magazines could be considered what Michel Foucault calls a “technology of the self,” which “permits individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (1988, p. 18). Magazines as technologies of the self reflect who a reader is or wants to be. This opportunity for transformation or the solidification of identity is a strong pull for a reader’s attention.
Foucault looks at this discovery of self-knowledge being based in other relationships as well, creating a need for a community (1988, p. 31). When considering publications, community is integral in its success. Artist Martine Syms says:
“I think of publishing as making things public…you build your audience based on how you’re communicating with them, so, for me, publishing has absolutely always been a social thing” (Ghorashi, 2016).
Publications act as a guideline to community norms, offering “a distinctive set of ideals, models, and products to aid a reader in connecting with their community” (Sivek, 2019, p. 7). Although reading is typically a solitary act, this connection through community brings meaning through a publication for readers.
Independent magazines have several aspects that attract audience attention. Through Davenport and Beck’s writing, a few elements become apparent for successfully garnering attention for independent magazines. First, short stories help people to avoid committing too much attention (2001, p. 102). For most magazines, content is shorter and normally comprised of a collection of work, providing quicker reading experiences. Second, people want to support the underdog (2001, p. 110). Existing outside of a typical capitalistic structure, independent magazines may struggle more to have the same resources for distribution and funds as their corporate-backed counterparts. Third, quality is becoming more important than quantity (2001, p. 221). Through self-expression and creativity, independent magazines are more focused on quality work rather than cost-effective and mass-produced publications. Foucault offers a fourth advantage, saying, “A retreat into the country becomes a spiritual retreat into oneself” (1988, p. 34). By taking a break from the oversaturated media world, Le Masurier explains that the allure of independent magazines is that they slow media time down, enabling readers to become more introspective outside of the media noise (2012, p. 394). These four elements are integral to gaining audience attention in the current media structure for independent magazines.
Through this case study, I aim to portray the independent magazine as a crucial example of a successful publication adaptation to the digital world. An analysis of Emergence, Oh Comely, and Rookie Magazines shows these publications’ motivations for intertwining both print and digital formats in their content circulation practices. These magazines were chosen for their varying uses of both print and digital formats for distribution, as well as their classification as independent magazines while each focused in different subjects. There are three main sections of this analysis: overview, showcasing basic information of the magazines; design decisions, considering the branding as well as the print and digital versions; and community engagement and audience attention, looking at how the magazines interact with their communities and how this connection provides a measurement for success through audience attention.
Case Study 1: Emergence Magazine
Overview: Starting in 2018, Emergence Magazine bases their content on spirituality, culture, and ecology. Located in both California and the Netherlands, Emergence distributes both quarterly digital issues and an annual printed volume. The demographic is a more mature audience, but Emergence features stories from a wide range of people from many ages, races, and genders. The magazine functions as an editorially independent initiative of the Kalliopeia Foundation, an organization that supports people and groups who are working to bring spiritual, cultural, and environmental values into everyday institutions and systems.
As an independent magazine, Emergence is published by a small team of people, focused on niche subjects. Its focus is not on profit, which is apparent through its work with the Kalliopeia Foundation and lack of advertisements. Emergence also cultivates a community through deep conversations about our shared surroundings. The printed magazine explains this sense of community, saying “asking might bring something forth for the reader, awakening a sense of place and belonging” (“Letter from the Editors,” 2019).
Design Decisions: All Emergence Magazine design materials, including branding, print, and digital pieces, were created by a Dutch agency named Studio AIRPORT. The logo is usually in the form of a wordmark featuring a bold, rounded serif (Seen in Figure I). Monotones and earth tones are the most prominent colors seen in the brand, working as a visual representation of the magazine’s mature focus on ecology. Images are focused on environments, nature, and portraits of people to further highlight the main content (Figure II).
Studio AIRPORT explains that the challenge for Emergence was in knowing the magazine’s intention of intertwining formats, saying that they had to “make sure it [visual identity] didn’t limit itself to a static style whilst remaining recognizable for its audience” (European Design Awards, 2019, para. 2). While the stories remain the same in both digital and print formats, they are presented in different ways. A virtual reality experience featured in a digital issue called “Sanctuaries of Silence” (Figure III) was translated into a series of photographs for the printed volume (Figure IV). Emergence Magazine recognizes the most effective way to tell a story and presents it in print, digital, or an adaptation of both formats.
Community Engagement and Audience Attention: Emergence Magazine creates a community by telling stories about communities. The content introduces the idea that ecology, spirituality, and culture affects everyone and connects each person to one another. Many of the interactions on social media sites have shown that readers are already somewhat involved in these topics and use Emergence Magazine as a credible way to learn more. In October 2019, Emergence Magazine had over 28,000 web views, according to web traffic recorder Similar Web. Along with website views, Emergence has garnered a social media following, with 10.4k followers on Instagram, 916k followers on Facebook, and 9,400 followers on Twitter.
Case Study 2: Oh Comely Magazine
Overview: It should be noted that this publication has been recently rebranded as Oh Magazine which includes a complete change in content. Since Oh Comely has been distributed for 50 issues over nine years, it still remains a valid and long-standing example for this research.
Starting in 2010, Oh Comely was a women’s magazine focused on stories, culture, curiosities, makers, and ideas based on the concepts of the woman experience, creativity, and introspection. The magazine was printed bi-monthly through its own publishing company, Iceberg Press. Its digital means of publishing were through blog posts, which were somewhat sporadic at 3–7 posts per month. Based in the United Kingdom, Oh Comely was distributed internationally and mostly aimed towards women in their 20’s.
As an independent magazine, Oh Comely had very few and curated advertisements and worked towards a strong community base. It also aimed to function outside the mainstream women’s magazine structure. On their website, Oh Comely stated:
“we believed that there was a better way to create and publish magazines — where the readers were as important as the advertisers, where the paper quality and design were valued and where the words and pictures weren’t always trying to sell stuff, didn’t portray perfection, didn’t tell people what to do and made them feel better, not worse” (“Our Magazine,” para. 14).
Design Decisions: The Oh Comely wordmark was a handwritten script typeface, featuring the handwriting of the original editor’s mother to introduce a personal touch (Seen in Figure V) (Oh Comely Magazine Twitter, 2014). Oh Comely used muted pastels, with periwinkle being a reoccurring color to keep a calm tone throughout the print and digital works. Images included photos and illustrations depicting varying portrayals of femininity, portraits of women, and introspective environments. The overall design followed an editorial route, however, the design differed from consumer magazines by its use of white space. This aligned with Oh Comely’s motivation to provide a place for readers to slow down while reading (Figure VI).
It was clear that the blog acted more like a supplement because content was repeated from the printed version (Figures VII and VIII). While the blog style page was not as prominent of an asset for the magazine, Oh Comely also used Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to distribute content.
Community Engagement and Audience Attention: Whether opening submissions to the upcoming issue, welcoming mailed letters and packages from readers, or running a book club that invited readers to physically join or passively follow along on their own, Oh Comely interacted with its community in various ways. The content presented a camaraderie in the common situations of women, showing readers that their experiences were not singular.
Many of Oh Comely’s community members said they liked that the magazine had a broad feminist approach that considered the ideology from many angles and expressions. They also appreciated that Oh Comely supported women in various ventures, such as highlighting women-owned businesses. Readers felt that the magazine was different, quirky, and creative. Similar Web tracked 2,500 web views on Oh Comely’s website in October 2019. While their web visits are minimal, the magazine generated a lot of interaction through social media, including 44k followers on Instagram, 50k on Facebook, and 23k on Twitter.
Case Study 3: Rookie Magazine
Overview: It should be noted that Rookie stopped functioning in late 2018. Although no longer producing new content, Rookie still has seven years’ worth of work with 87 issues still available online.
Rookie Magazine, started in 2011 by 15-year-old Tavi Gevinon and was a “magazine for and by teenagers” (“About,” para. 1). Based in the United States, Rookie published online content about teenage interest areas such as beauty, books, friendship, music, and advice. Each digital issue was distributed monthly, with only a few stories released daily throughout the month in a calendar format (Figure IX). An annual “yearbook,” which was comprised of the year’s collection of issues, was printed during the first four years of production. This printed version became a tangible keepsake for readers to have a physical, sentimental connection to the online magazine.
As an independent magazine, Rookie was founded as a response to feeling “constantly marketed to in almost all forms of media; to being seen as a consumer rather than a reader or person” (Gevinson, 2018, para. 4). In Gevinson’s farewell letter on Rookie’s website, she stated that the magazine was closed to avoid “selling it to new owners, taking money from investors, or asking readers for donations or subscriptions” (2018, para. 2).
Design Decisions: The Rookie brand overall had a handmade feel. The wordmark was in a wobbly, sans serif typeface and was used as an identifying element for the magazine (Seen in Figure X). The magazine was very colorful and bright. There was not a set color palette, and both print and digital versions of the magazine featured different styles and colors for each story. Images included photos, illustrations, and scans of physical objects (like necklaces and confetti) showing visuals of teenagers, their environments, and their creative pursuits. The print content stays in a structured grid layout to avoid clashing with the busier elements of each spread (Seen in Figure XI). The digital content displays stories in a blog fashion, intertwining images, videos, playlists, and other interactive elements into the layout (Figure XII). Each aspect of Rookie related to zine culture, through handmade, personal, experimental, and collaged elements and a need to share the magazine amongst peers. The magazine provided an interactive space on both formats, including how-to guides, online printable collage elements, and stickers in printed books. Rookie was well-known online including their presence on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Community Engagement and Audience Attention: By having Rookie readers as contributors to the magazine, the audience became a part of the community. The magazine supplied a place of belonging for teenagers through creativity and sharing of experiences. Many readers commented on how they felt that Rookie had accompanied them through adolescence. Readers also mentioned that it made them feel less alone during teenage years and helped them to think outside of confined, mainstream expectations.
Similar Web found that in October 2019, Rookie had 43,000 web views. This is impressive, considering the magazine has not been producing new content for almost a year. On social media, Rookie still receives comments and followers on their profiles. Rookie maintains 228k followers on Instagram and 97k on Twitter.
Through this case study, I discovered four key areas that furthered the discussion of a reshaping of publication history through the independent magazine’s adaptation to the digital age through the intertwining of both print and digital formats.
With a more fluid definition of publications, storytelling is even more effective through interactions present in both formats. A magazine is no longer only a printed piece; as these three publications prove, it can be a virtual reality experience, an online collection of submissions, or a physical and virtual community. Intertwining both print and digital formats grants magazines the ability to function as true storytellers untethered to a limited method.
Emergence, Oh Comely, and Rookie each fit the publication definitions provided by Henderson and Badlands Unlimited. First, they all present a portable system of information in both print and digital formats. The three magazines had content available online while also producing portable print versions of their content. Each magazine portrayed their own information systems through consistent branding styles such as colors, typefaces, and imagery. Second, these magazines acted as interactive storytelling devices, moving beyond the simple act of reading. Whether this was listening to authors narrate their work in Emergence, following curated playlists made by Oh Comely, or printing out a collage guide in Rookie, each magazine had layers of interactions for their readers to become a part of the narrative. Third, each magazine acted as a product for questioning knowledge systems in place, providing readers with the tools to consume information with a critical lens. Oh Comely and Rookie pressed the question of why magazine structures are homogenized for their demographics in the mainstream industry. Emergence also questioned these knowledge structures by focusing on the most effective way to share information rather than how it has always been accomplished.
Other than adapting to the digital age, the motivation behind this intertwining of formats can be seen as access. By having both print and digital formats available, audiences are able to choose their own preferences or needs without being excluded from content. However, this access also considers the rise of clear communication lines between community members, including both readers and publishers. While reading remains a fairly solitary act, the digital world, particularly social media, allows readers to interact with each other as well as the publishers and creators of a publication. This access to community provides a new way of communicating with like-minded people, creating an additional layer to the magazine structure.
Community and Audience Attention
Each magazine, using their fluid magazine definitions and access through multiple formats, put a lot of effort towards cultivating their own communities through their publications. Whether providing a safe space for teenagers, a book club for like-minded women, or a connection through conversations about ecology, these three magazines created communities through their production. By supplying these communities and acting as a reflection of values through content, these magazines represented technologies of the self for readers. Community members were able to place themselves in the content, either by relating to it through who they were already or looking for guidance on who they wanted to be. Rookie readers sought advice from other teenagers to improve their own lives while Emergence readers found guidance in further understanding the world around them physically and spiritually. Whether readers were already identifying with the content or hoping to follow more closely to the values included in the stories, these magazines acted as technologies of the self through active or passive identity reflections.
While I was unable to find how many print copies of each magazine were sold, the digital audience attention received was substantial. Social media helps these magazines to continuously interact with their followers outside of a more traditional publishing sense. Each magazine had a significant amount of social media users attached to their profiles. Emergence had a large amount of Facebook users, which fit with their adult demographic. Rookie had the most Instagram followers, even after remaining defunct after a year. While Oh Comely had less social interaction than the other two magazines, it still had a noteworthy number of followers on each network for operating as a mostly printed magazine.
These three magazines fit the criteria for how independent magazines typically garner audience attention. Each publication functioned as a collection of short stories that were quick to consume. All three provided underdog stories, whether representing content outside of mainstream media like the disappearance of indigenous people’s language and deep ecological activism or providing a new and more respectful magazine structure for demographics only seen in specific types of consumer magazines. Quality was often valued more than quantity, particularly in both Emergence and Oh Comely’s inclination to print beautiful, well-made publications. For Rookie, quality was found in their submissions that went through a curation process to accept only the highest quality pieces. Finally, each magazine focused on ways to aid readers in slowing down and removing themselves from media noise. All three chose to do so by removing readers’ digital devices and replacing them with printed pieces.
Implications for Design
The implications for design call for more attention to details as the understanding of various formats is integral to the future of publication design practice. Designers will need to consider multiple forms, such as paper printing, coding, and virtual reality to consider the most effective ways for audiences to consume information. This research also supports broadened opportunities for interactivity within publications, allowing for exploration in designing for unique reader experiences. There is more for a designer to consider when designing a publication utilizing both print and digital formats. Whether ensuring correct color usage across platforms or adjusting typefaces to be more effective across several mediums, quality and consistency between each format will be key to design successes. Designers will be able to experiment more with interactive elements to challenge how readers read now that they are not confined to static spaces. A publication designer will need to become more interdisciplinary in their practice as print and digital formats continue to intertwine.
As the interweaving of print and digital formats becomes more prominent in the independent magazine industry, our definition of magazines needs to adjust. Both formats supply different, but crucial values to a magazine as a whole; print delivers quality and sentimentality while digital provides access and community connection. As we continue to form this definition, magazines are more likely to adapt easily because of their similarities to digital media. This fluid definition offers better access for readers, new opportunities for designers, and the formation of growing communities. This adapting definition also allows magazines to successfully garner audience attention through the use of both print and digital formats, permitting readers to have access to the content that they value most in their oversaturated media worlds. The independent magazine is a crucial example that publication history has not ended; it is just constantly changing.
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