Niche magazines: who reads what, and why?

    Photo by John Griffiths, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    If you’re a student at Northwestern, chances are you have a friend in Medill. The chances are pretty good, too, that your friend has probably uttered the phrase “print journalism is dead!” The recent introduction of the iPad, coupled with the broader trends in the journalism world, has indeed made it seem like all the best publications will soon be exclusively online. Trendsetter The New York Timesannounced in January that starting in January 2011, they will start charging non-subscribers for viewing certain content on their website. The idea that a consumer should actually pay for quality reporting online seems ludicrous. Consequently, it may be almost laughable that small, niche magazines –- both local and national –- could survive in the current market. Yet not only are niche magazines surviving: some are even thriving.

    Niche magazines are not just small, bi-monthly or quarterly magazines that target fishermen or knitters. According to Medill professor David Standish, the category encompasses “all magazines look for a specifically targeted audience. I guess niche . . . kind of depends on how small that target is.” In these tough economic times, some niche magazines are hitting a much larger target audience than others, leaving them in the proverbial dust in terms of readership.

    “In terms of print product, those that are going to survive are going to have to do something really useful for their readers.”

    Standish said, “I think the whole media landscape is in upheaval right now. And I think that what’s happening with magazines, the area that I know best, is that there is going to be a considerable shake-out… In terms of print product, those that are going to survive are going to have to do something really useful for their readers.”

    Standish pointed out the The Economist and The New Yorker are both doing well despite poor overall magazine performances because they provide their readers with information they want – be it sage economic advice or just intellectual stimulation.

    While Northwestern students are undoubtedly reading the aforementioned publications, they aren’t the only magazines which people will go to the effort to physically own. For instance, Sophomore theatre major Hannah Greene subscribes to American Theatre Magazine, a magazine that she discovered on the Northwestern campus.

    “I actually had seen [the magazine] before, in various theatre-related offices, sort of lying about. Then I saw it in the upstairs part of TI where the theater department office is, and I picked it up and decided it was something I ought to read,” Greene said. “I just flipped through it and it looked really educational and something I should read as a theatre major.”

    Greene wasn’t an actual subscriber to the magazine until after she interned with them last summer, but it definitely suits her interests more than other magazines that she used to read, like The Economist, Conde Nast Traveler, and Vanity Fair.

    While Greene does not know anyone else on campus that subscribes to American Theatre Magazine, she does “know some friends who read it in the office, when it’s in the office.” But she is most definitely not alone in both subscribing to a niche magazine, and in wanting an education from her magazine.

    Nicki Koetting, a freshman in Medill, subscribes to mental_floss magazine. As she described it, “It’s basically this kind of small magazine that has as its [slogan]: ‘where knowledge junkies get their fix’.”

    Will Pearson, the President of mental_floss, expanded on Koetting’s description. “There are two ways we look at the balance of what goes into the magazine: one is purely the subject matter. If we’re trying to deliver on a liberal arts education, let’s make sure we have a nice balance of the arts and history and science and economics, and also mix in some pop culture and trivia. And the other way we look at the balance would be in the three categories we consider [in the magazine]: things we were supposed to have learned at school…things you’d like to learn but you feel are over your head…[and] things you didn’t realize you wanted to know but are very interesting.”

    It is perhaps not surprising that mental_floss is appealing to college students: the idea for the magazine was basically started in a dorm room at Duke, together with his hall mate Mangesh Hattikudur – who now oversees the creative side of the magazine – when they got into a conversation about education. “We didn’t all agree, but we did all agree that people like to feel smart and feel well-educated, but we also agreed that many forms of educational material are not frequently entertaining. It was really kind of a more selfish endeavor…and being naïve college students we thought we were qualified to start a magazine.”

    “A magazine that blurs the lines between education and entertainment in an effort to make its readership smarter.”

    From the Duke dorms to today, mental_floss has grown into a nationally distributed magazine with about 300,000 regular readers all over the country. It is stocked in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, as well as upper-end grocery stores like Whole Foods.

    Though mental_floss may seem like the very definition of a small, niche magazine, readership varies from high school students to busy professionals, and even to retirement communities, and appeals to both men and women alike.  As Pearson said of mental_floss, it is “a magazine that blurs the lines between education and entertainment in an effort to make its readership smarter.”

    James Sowell is another Northwestern student who gets what he wants to know from a magazine. Sowell, a WCAS senior, subscribes to Wired. While he doesn’t really remember when he first found out about Wired, Sowell insists that he has kind of always known about it because it’s ‘big in the tech world and computer world’. He got the subscription as a present, and started receiving the magazine this past December.

    Both Sowell and his girlfriend share his subscription, trading off which reads it and taking it once the other one is done with it. As he put it, “Wired, more or less, is a magazine about the state of technology in the world. So issues range everywhere from high speed rails to something more like to iPad or current internet trends, stuff like that.”

    “…if solid books are in danger of becoming obsolete because of small portable electronic devices, what chance do magazines have?”

    Wired also isn’t the only magazine to ruminate on the iPad. In its April 26th issue, The New Yorker published a 7-page spread on how the iPad, the Kindle, and e-books in general are drastically changing the publishing landscape. And if solid books are in danger of becoming obsolete because of small portable electronic devices, what chance do magazines have?

    Well, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), sales of magazines in newsstands fell 9.1% in the second half of 2009, while circulation was down 3.78%. Things didn’t look much better in February of 2010 — but then again, as Standish pointed out, the industry is going through a shake-out of sorts, where only the highest-quality writing and most pertinent information will survive.

    Comic books and magazines don’t seem to be losing as much steam. With the release of movies like Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2, it is obvious that comics are no longer just for collectors, but for a much larger audience.

    Sowell is also a comics fan. While he doesn’t regularly follow one series, he says he “tend[s] to look at some of the bigger, more influential storylines in some of the things that influence the movies that come out.” When The Dark Knight came out, for instance, Sowell read a couple of the Batman storylines that influenced the movie. He also keeps track of big story lines, like the recent rebirth of Captain America. He goes to Comix Revolution, Northwestern’s local comics store, about once a month “to try to pick through what’s new.”

    Jim Mortensen, the owner and president of Comix Revolution, is actually a Northwestern alumnus. The Evanston store opened in December 2000, adding a second Comix Revolution to the original store on Mt. Prospect, Illinois. According to Mortensen, “We sell a lot of independent comics, or sort of non-superhero comics…as well as art books, fiction, non-fiction… that sort of reconnects to The New Yorker magazine tradition of James Thurber of sort of bridging cartoons and literature…I think there’s a natural crossover between the two.” You’re going to find a lot more than just Superman and Wonder Woman at Comix Revolution.

    Mortensen’s store also carries some locally-made comics. The store takes items on consignment, “which allows somebody that does their own project to come in and put it on the shelf and have some exposure, and maybe get some feedback or some sales.”

    While in general the local comics don’t sell very well, some long-term creators have developed an audience and will sell between 5-15 copies of anything that they put out. There are some of these worth checking out; for instance, Jeff Zwirek – a former employee at Comix Revolution – puts out his own comics. His latest is called “Burning Building Comix” and it is a sequential comic where the plot proceeds as a fire goes up a building. Another creator to check out is John Porcellino, an Illinois native who writes the lighthearted “King Cat” series.

    If you’d like to begin reading comics but don’t know where to start, Comix Revolution is happy to help you. “Come in and say what [you] like and then we’ll find something that fits [them] perfectly,” Mortensen said.

    Whether you’re into local comics, superheroes, or the state of American theatre, there is definitely a magazine out there for you. Sophomore art theory and fashion major Morgan Kriehbiel subscribes to Nylon magazine…sort of. “I picked up a free subscription card at Urban Outfitters, and I’ve never paid for the subscription. It just keeps coming. I would pay for it but I don’t. And that was probably three years ago.”  If you look hard enough, you’re guaranteed to find a magazine that suits your interests – and if you can follow Kriehbiel’s example and get it for free, then that’s just a little more change in your pocket to spend as you like.

    Updated 4/26 8:17 p.m. to amend a spelling error. Thanks to commenter Hi. for pointing out the mistake.


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