In A 24/7 World, What Is A Magazine?

The monthly cycle of most magazines seems glacially slow compared to the 24/7 flow of the Web. Magazines, large and small, have been challenged to redefine themselves as both paper and online publications.

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It's hard to know what a magazine is these days. Is it the glossy paper product you get in the mail and buy at the newsstand? Or is it the Web site? The constant flow of information on the Internet has forced all magazines to reconsider their definition.

Reporter Martha Woodroof examines the process going on within the world of special interest magazine publishing.

MARTHA WOODROOF: Office space doesn't come any more historic than the Virginia Quarterly Review's. Their digs at the University of Virginia were designed by Thomas Jefferson. But the staff of this small, international journal of print and discussion is not nearly as steeped in the past as their surroundings. They talk enthusiastically about the rich material they're able to offer readers through the VQR's Web site.

Even though Editor Ted Genoways admits they don't exactly know what they're doing digitally - yet.

Mr. TED GENOWAYS (Editor, "Virginia Quarterly Review"): We've got 80 years at our back for the print magazine. For the Web site, we're making it up as we go.

WOODROOF: Genoways cites a project on poverty in Troy, New York that's specifically designed to bust loose from the printed page.

Mr. GENOWAYS: We sent a poet, a radio producer and a photographer out into the field together. And I think that's, for us, really the first time that we've thought of the final product actually being the Web product, as opposed to the print product.

WOODROOF: Walter Jakewith(ph) is the VQR Web editor.

Mr. WALTER JAKEWITH (Web Editor): The transition that all publications are going to have to start making is we have to view ourselves as an organization that creates content - I hate that word - but content. But then physical product ceases to be the end product. It's a by-product of creating this information.

WOODROOF: So what is a magazine in these days of multi-platform presentation?

Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Association of Magazine Editors, says he and some ASME members who work on the Web were recently asking themselves that same question, and came up with this.

Mr. SID HOLT (Chief Executive, American Association of Magazine Editors): A magazine has a point of view and I think that's what really distinguishes a magazine from other - all other kinds of media. And it has a very distinctive point of view and it's the voice of the editor, and it's the voice of editor in conversation with his or her readers.

WOODROOF: But does technology influence what that conversation is about? "Backpacker" magazine won three national magazine awards this year, two of them for Editor Jonathan Dorn says new technology brings "Backpacker" instant interactivity with its readers, thus meeting a much wider range of reader needs.

Mr. JONATHAN DORN (Editor, "Backpacker"): We are going beyond through the simple idea of a Web site being a place where you go to read or look at something, to an idea of a Web site as sort of delivery vehicle, where you go to download useful information or map that you actually get to use in the field.

WOODROOF: "Backpacker's" readers, Dorn says, still want a print edition, but they also want access to information while they're hiking. Magazine subscriptions are at an all-time high, according to the Magazine Publishers of America, however…

Mr. EMERSON BLAKE (Editor-in-Chief, "Orion"): Anybody who thinks they know where this world of publishing is going is lying.

WOODROOF: Emerson Blake edits "Orion," an almost three-decade-old magazine of environmental activism.

Mr. BLAKE: The question for a magazine like "Orion" that has limited resources is resource allocation: how much of our resources do we put toward a Web-based presence now, at a time when we have our hands full just trying to get a print-based magazine out the door?

WOODROOF: These days, all magazines, great and small, are trying to figure out the process of their own reinvention, and even more importantly: how to make those reinventions pay.

For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

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