I’ve always thought of myself as a magazine person. My first job was working for a news magazine. In the very early days of India Today, we would devour copies of Time, hoping to understand the tricks of the trade. For years, I even wrote my serious pieces in that style (“The irony was inescapable. Sanjay Gandhi, 36, died as he had lived, recklessly endangering the lives of innocent people…..”, I mean I didn’t actually write that but you know what I mean). And our first editorial triumphs were entirely inspired by Herry Luce’s heirs. Had Time done a story on Stanley Kubricks’s Barry Lyndon, called Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble? Great, we would do one on Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram, called (sorry for being so literal!) Kapoor’s Greatest Gamble.
When we started Bombay magazine, we were inspired by the kick-ass irreverence of New York magazine, and when I relaunched Imprint in 1983, my idols were the great magazine editors and writers: Clay Felker, Nora Ephron, Tom Wolfe, Nik Cohn and even, Richard Ingrams.
By the time I moved to Sunday in 1986, I was liable to construct an archetypal news magazine cover story out of thin air, could discuss the difference between US Vogue and British Vogue and explain why The New York Times colour magazine was such a bore while the (London) Sunday Times had mastered the formula. In fact, it took me many months to adjust to editing a newspaper and even there, I introduced many of the tricks of magazine journalism.
These days, I get nearly every Indian magazine and around 14 different American and British magazines. But here’s the thing: I find it increasingly difficult to spend any time reading them. Most now seem completely unreadable and insubstantial.
Some of this is understandable. Way back in 1988, when I earnestly visited the offices of Time and Newsweek in New York, the editors were all obsessed with the growing irrelevance of the news magazine format in the age of fat newspapers and news television.
And while many of the news magazines have reinvented themselves successfully (Time, in particular), none of them is required reading any longer. It’s the same in India. Sunday is dead and while I may enjoy reading Outlook, my understanding of the world will not suffer greatly if I never read another news magazine for as long as I live.
So it is with general interest magazines. The single best magazine in India, across all genres, is the Mumbai TimeOut so I make a point of reading it. But as for the rest, I couldn’t be bothered. I have no interest in the film magazines; the people magazines are antique curiosities in the age of Page Three; the men’s magazines are entirely uncompelling; and I’ve never had much use for the women’s magazines with their stories of women who’ve triumphed in a man’s world (Femina), or women who’ve had multiple orgasms (Cosmopolitan).
You could argue that my attitude emanates from the arrogance of us (present and former) metropolitan newspaper editors, but I have to say that there’s not a single foreign magazine that I like either. Except for Vanity Fair, I find them all boring.
Perhaps, it’s just me. May be there are millions of Americans who are willing to spend time on Esquire (unreadable) or GQ (ugly and unreadable) but do you want to read a magazine that devotes space to such “sartorial conundrums” as “In my company, I’m one step away from vice-president and I notice that most of the VPs have perfect nails. If I want a promotion, do I need to get manicures?” (the answer is even more cringe-inducing: “Take B complex, keep ’em short and clean—using a nail brush—and hope for the best”).
Even the fashion magazines seem dull. It takes me five minutes to read American Vogue (unless there’s a piece by Jeffrey Steingarten) and even less time to flip through British Vogue. Both Harper’s Bazaars are bores and In Style is simply tacky.
Could it be that I’m going through a midlife crisis where nothing really grabs me? Or is the age of the magazine drawing to a close?
I’m not sure. But here are some facts—last year, UK companies spent more money advertising on the Internet than in the entire magazine sector. Magazine circulations are in free fall. The lads’ magazines market is dying. Loaded is down 40% in circulation over last year; Maxim is down 20% and Nuts is down 10%.
The women’s magazine sector is not faring much better. New Women is down 20%, Red and Elle are down 5% and Glamour is down 10%.
So far, the biggies—Esquire, GQ, Vogue—are okay, but fashion titles have lost about 4% of their circulation across the industry. British Vogue (up 2% against trends) still makes money, but the portents are ominous.
Media experts are not short of explanations for the collapse of the magazine sector. But here are some of my own: There’s a general decline in editorial quality of magazines all over the world—the best journos no longer want to work for a magazine unless it’s Vanity Fair or The New Yorker. Some titles are just too dated for our times (Rolling Stone, the generic men and women’s mags); as circulations fall, desperate editors are trying to reach out to the lowest common denominator, leading to a collapse of quality.
And here’s the biggest reason of them all: in an age when news features are freely available—on TV, in such supplements as Lounge and Brunch and on the Internet—nobody sees any reason to pay for the middling quality journalism you find in most magazines.
Speaking as a hard core magazine journo, I mourn the passing of my trade. But speaking as a reader, I can see why there’s going to be a bonfire of the magazines.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi