Magazines vs. The Web: End of an Era

Magazines vs. The Web: End of an Era

There was once a heyday in which print magazines flew off the shelves when a new piece of hardware was released. These days, readers flock to their favorite website, and instead gauging public interest in terms of the number of issues sold, we measure it in page views.

Why Magazines Can't Compete

Many of you may not know my professional history, but I am a former editor for Maximum PC magazine. I spent approximately five years there writing features, reviewing hardware, writing how-tos, and eventually served as a Senior Editor.

I recently decided to move to Austin, TX in order to escape the Bay Area’s obscene housing market, and ended up landing at [H] Consumer. I’ve been working here since September, and the whole time I’ve been adjusting to the “Web” lifestyle and thinking about which medium is better suited to delivering hardware news. Of course, when I worked at the magazine I rarely questioned its ability to compete in the marketplace with all the Web upstarts. But now that I’ve been immersed in the Web world for awhile, when I stand back and look at the situation, I think magazines are destined to fail at this enterprise. And I can think of three reasons why.

The first, and most obvious, is the issue of how long it takes to go to print. This was always our Achilles heel in the magazine world, as we’d receive new hardware the same time as everybody else and test it with the same haste. Once we were finished testing, we’d write our thoughts, send it off to the printer, and wait a month for it to hit newsstands. The Web? We’d start to see people publishing just a few days after they received the product, often times beating us to the punch by several weeks.

This situation was bothersome, but there was nothing we could do to change it so we didn’t let it get us down. Hardware vendors would not send us products ahead of time in order to allow us to publish at the same time as the websites, so our hands were tied. This wasn’t always the case, however. Back in the day, when magazines were seen as the most prestigious conduit of tech information, we would often receive hardware before websites, but as sites like Anandtech, Toms Hardware and [H]ardocp began to rise in prominence, we found to our chagrin that the rules had changed. This saddled us with an insurmountable burden, and if people didn’t have the patience to wait to hear our results from a hardware test, well, there wasn’t much we could do about it.

The second big advantage the Web has over print is that there are no space limitations in cyberspace. Magazines are an expensive endeavor, and every single page in the magazine is largely paid for by advertising revenue. When the magazine’s sales staff sold more ads, we were able to print more pages, but even when we had a “big book,” as it’s called, we were still bound by incredibly frustrating word counts. For example, a typical one-page system review would be 650 words, with two images and a benchmark chart. If it’s a two-page review, the word count went up to about 1,100 or so. To put that in context, the last system evaluation I wrote for [H] Consumer was approximately 12,000 words, and contained upwards of 75 photos and six benchmark charts. Which article do you think would be more informative and thorough?

This is not to impugn magazine editors, as they don’t like the situation either, but such is the reality of the print medium. Tight word counts do have a benefit, however, in that it forces the author to be extremely concise in his or her commentary, which is almost the exact opposite to some of the 20-plus page articles you find on the Web. But luckily, on the Web, you can just skip to the conclusion if you don’t want to navigate all those pages of text. In my experience, I found the word count and graphic limitations incredibly frustrating, especially when reviewing water-cooling kits. I was always only able to print one photo, so I was unable to show the components, how they were installed, what it looked like in the case, and so forth. Instead, I had to disassemble the entire kit, and plop it down on the photography table for its solo picture. The same goes for case reviews, which only get one photo, and so forth.

Finally, there’s the issue of cost. Magazine subscriptions are relatively inexpensive, although Maximum PC is a bit different if you opt to get the “disc” subscription. Still, it’s roughly $12 a year or so, and you have to deal with the post office as well as a customer service team if you don’t get your magazine on time. The Web, on the other hand, is free, and information is available as soon as it’s published.

Now, back in the day, one could conceivably argue that it was worth it to pay for a magazine subscription since the information was more reliable than that found on the Web, but that is clearly not the case anymore. Though a lot of us in the magazine world used to regard a lot of hardware websites with nothing but contempt, there are a few that have earned the respect of the print magazine community through their reliable and sound testing methodology.

But the point remains: Why pay for a magazine, with its “old” content, when you can get similar content for free, as soon as its available? This is the crux of this entire issue, I believe, and this is why we’re seeing more and more people move to the Web for their news.

Interestingly, this very point was made by none other than Jonathan Simpson Bint, President of Future US, which owns Maximum PC, Official X-Box magazine, and PC Gamer. In a meeting with Jonathan Bint in the middle of 2006 to discuss the future of Maximum PC, he told us the magazine was doing great and was not in danger of being canned (unlike several other future titles which had recently been cancelled, including Future Music and Scrapbook Answers). But, Bint said, the future of publishing is on the Web.

In fact, Future US is so sure that the Web is the future it is pouring millions of dollars into an atrocious “gaming portal” named Games Radar. During this meeting, Bint also hinted that there may come a time in the future where Maximum PC would have to go online to compete with other tech hardware sites. A sort of “tech radar,” if you will. Clearly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for magazines to stay relevant when there are so many disadvantages inherent in their business model.

All of this is not good news for the old guard of magazine editors, obviously, but in most cases, magazines are still superior to websites when it comes to the quality of writing, photos, and layout. There is definitely a level of pride and craftsmanship (not to mention time and money) that goes into every page of every magazine issue. But will nice photos, a good presentation, and great writing be enough to save the magazines in the long run? For the sake of my former colleagues, and friends, in the magazine business, I hope so. But a more sober assessment would be that tech magazines aren’t long for this world, and simply cannot compete with their online contemporaries.


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