The Death & Rebirth of Mac Magazines: Part 1 – The Withering

Part I: The Withering

Since the early days of the original Macintosh, many things have passed away…NUBUS cards, AppleTalk, ADB ports and sadly, many great Mac magazines.

I remember a time in the not so distant past when my copies of Macworld magazine were about the thickness of a small town’s yellow pages.  I remember fondly my subscription to MacUser magazine before it receded from the US never to darken these shores again.. I also remember the days when Apple was beginning to struggle. It was the days of defiant Power Computing Ads, PowerPC vs. Intel “Bake-offs” and MacAddict magazine which defiantly and irreverently carried the pro Mac banner until it was dragged away for “political re-education” and when relaunched as Mac|Life lost much of what had made it unique.

Today there are only 2 or 3 mainstream Mac magazines, despite the fact that Mac usage is at its highest point in decades. Millions of new iPhone and iPod owners are reintroducing people to the Macintosh and even the most jaded cynics have to acknowledge that Apple is a force in the computer industry once more. So everything is looking up, except for the state of our magazines. Why, when things are so exciting and our computers are so great are our magazines so often neither?

A great deal of it, I think, is sheer economics. The skyrocketing costs of printing and distribution combined with the immediacy of the internet has dealt a crippling blow to many respected magazines and the companies that published them. lots of well-established magazines are having trouble keeping their readership these days and with advertising revenues down, there are really only a few viable options….downsize the magazine, trade content for more ad space, cut back on everything. According to some admittedly dated information from 2004 by the University of Mississippi, more than 60% of all magazines fail in their first year. 80% fail within 4 years and and an astounding 90% fail by their tenth year. The statistics are grim and not likely to improve.

Possible Topics for Mac Magazine

That being said, some of the blame for the current state of things has to fall directly on the magazines themselves. When available space for content is limited, every editorial choice counts and if you’re not making the case for your continued survival with each and every page, you’re in danger of losing touch with your readership and starting to slow and steady slide towards irrelevance. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the same kinds of stories seem to crop up in magazines which are gasping for breath. When you need to fill pages of a monthly magazine cheaply, these are the topics you often turn to:

1)  the “what if apple made a (fill in the blank)” story: Yeah, it’s fun to get a 3D artist to conceptualize what an apple iPod umbrella might look like, but it’s the cotton candy of mac content… all spun sugar and air. If you’re going to spend valuable pages geeking out over something, geek out over something real and save the “MacToaster™” concept drawing for a final chuckle on the back page.

2)  the “we build a $50,000 mac dream system!” story: This one has been done to death. everyone dreams of the system they’d build if money was no object and while it’s fun, it really isn’t relevant to anyone but the dreamer. Instead, focus on getting the functionality of that $50,000 system for a price real people can afford. My general rule of thumb is….if the peripheral or gizmo costs more than the mac it plugs into, then it doesn’t matter how good it is because it’s probably too damn expensive for the average user. There’s a fine line between wishful thinking and high-tech masturbation.

3) the “automate your home with your Mac!” story: Another perennial favorite. Most Mac users have better things to do than to use microphones, applescripts, x-19 automation modules and universal access to make our computers say “by your command!” while turning on the teapot. Crazy Mac projects are fun, but rarely functional.

4)  the “ultimate buyers guide” story: Most of the time, this phrase translates into “pages and pages of stuff our intern got from press releases and jammed together into a list”. A real buyer’s guide means that you have to review the products, come to some kind of conclusion and actually help guide the buyer through the decision-making process. When it’s done right, it’s incredibly insightful. When done on the cheap, it’s nothing more than a list of specifications.

5)  the “15 fun things to do with an old Mac” story: We’ve all seen old macs get turned into aquariums and gutted to make decorative planters. all too often, these stories ignore the real work that could still be done with these machines and go right for the kitsch. if my Mac is truly too obsolete to do real work, then personally, I’d prefer it to die with some dignity and not end up recycled into a do-it-yourself trivet or tea cozy.

6) the “rate your mac-ness with our super trivia quiz” story: It’s supposed to be cheeky and fun, but instead it comes across as creative bankruptcy, a hail-mary pass which screams that you have space to fill and nothing to fill it with. at that point, you might as well put in a crossword puzzle and a word jumble because the only people reading you will be bored travelers in airports.

So economics is partly to blame, but the increased consequences of editorial decisions plays its part as well. Publishing a Mac magazine today, given the economic climate and still relatively small user base is a daunting task. In fact, it might not even be commercially viable anymore.

At the same time, there is a new and growing audience for all things Apple and with millions of new customers flowing into the Mac ecosystem, there is a need and perhaps a way to reach these people and deliver content which is relevant and helpful. What is required is nothing less than a new vision of the traditional magazine. A metamorphosis. The question becomes, How can we “think different” about magazines in general and Mac magazines in particular. What is required for success?

This has been the first in a 2 part look at the past and current state of Mac magazines.  Part 2, to be published tomorrow this week will deal with potential solutions.