Magazines Worth Saving, or Mourning

Media Reviews for Media People: Entertainment Weekly, Playboy, Bon Appetit

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NEW YORK ( -- I can't speak for anybody else, but I expended my entire annual allowances of hope, optimism, amazement, pride, bewilderment, delight and delirium last week. As I watched our incoming president take the newly improvised oath of office, I felt something in my chest akin to the sensation I feel whenever I overdose on breakfast meat. I immediately called my physician, who told me to lay off the nitrates, and promised that I'd revert to my default state of civilization-is-crumbling hopelessness in no time at all.

Which, naturally, brings me to the magazine industry. The subject of more premature obituariesthan Joe DiMaggio and Britney Spears combined, the mag business has alternately been described in recent months as "troubled," "doomed," "broken" and "populated by unimaginative trend monkeys who, against all reason and evidence, seem to believe that readers are thirsting for information about greener ways to mount a mirror" (okay, that last one was me). It has all but been dismissed as a medium, even as the quality of magazine journalism remains quite high.

This bums me out. I like magazines. They are good company and, oftentimes, contain useful information about shoes. I'd hate to see them go the way of the manatee or the phonograph. Obviously we're way past "if you publish it, they will come," but there's gotta be a way to rejigger the business model so that magazines can ... well, not thrive, but at least subsist on some basic level for decades to come.

Did I mention that I majored in English and not economics? Anyway, for today's exercise I decided to get my print on and revisit a handful of supposed candidates for extinction, as identified in the morbidly entertaining Magazine Death Pool and elsewhere.

Why EW shouldn't be online only
Entertainment Weekly
It surprises me that Entertainment Weekly appears on these lists. Yes, a high percentage of the magazine's content translates well to the web and, no, the mag's terse, lively opinions on movies/TV/books/music won't lose much unaccompanied by the images that run beside them. In theory, Entertainment Weekly could ditch its costlier-to-produce print edition and remain a revered brand online.

I think this would be a big mistake. EW's well-crafted features (loved the one a few months back about the retired chimp who played Tarzan's best bud) lose their appeal online, since the print mag's airy, sidebar-happy layouts -- which consistently add depth and nuance -- can't easily be replicated. Additionally, not every reader has the time or inclination to trawl the web for pop-culture insight, clicking on a book review here and a lusting-for-page-views listicle there. Many lazy individuals (raising hand) prefer that it is delivered to them in one bright package.

EW is that package. And while the magazines-are-dead eulogies don't dwell on quality, let's not discount that Entertainment Weekly does what it does better than anybody else. It counts several of the entertainment world's sharpest critics among its ranks (especially Lisa Schwarzbaum for movies, Ken Tucker and Jeff Jensen for TV and Chris Willman for music). Inevitably a shift to web-only would result in staff cutbacks, and it'd be a shame to see some of these journos lose the platform the mag affords them.

The problem with Playboy
Playboy faces a different problem: Its entire brand identity centers around what our marketing pals would call a "value proposition" -- naked ladies all nude and whatnot -- that is no longer unique. See, there's this thing called the internet, where lots of women are naked. People tend not to pay for stuff they can get for free.

Still, the real problem for Playboy, as it has been for some time, is that it insists on alternating highbrow word-craft (investigations into drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, fiction by Jess Walter and James Ellroy) with horn-dog piffle (bawdy cartoons sure to be appreciated by your creepy Uncle Lester, images of female torsos methodically pruned of every trace of body hair). Maybe that mix made sense in the less crowded media environment of Playboy's heyday, but it doesn't anymore. Judging by how everything in the Playboy empire except the magazine itself has slowly nudged towards harder-core fare, somebody in the company's hierarchy has figured this out and steered the ship accordingly.

The irony, of course, is that Playboy has featured some wonderful journalism in recent months (true-crime profiles don't come much darker and more enticing than Richard Stratton's recent piece on James "Whitey" Bulger) and continues to showcase as many A-list journalists as any mag out there. When Playboy shuts down shop within the next 18 months, GQ oughta pounce on the editor(s) who have been commissioning the mag's non-nudie content.

Losing appetite for Bon Appetit
Bon Apetit
Finally, hoity-toity magazine writing doesn't get any hoitier or toitier than when high-minded, self-serious food essayists get to sharpenin' their pencils ("And so it was in a tea room just off the coast of Crete that I finally, inevitably, sensually came eye-to-eye with arugula, the mischievous Mediterranean herb that had invaded my dreams and accessorized my sandwich"). Not surprisingly, this sort of verbal bombast doesn't resonate at a time when half the country is running up its blood pressure courtesy of a budget-mandated reliance on super-tasty, super-salty Campbell's soups.

Bon Appétit rarely indulges in such silliness. A marvel of presentation -- the February manages to make kale look alluring and, dare I say, edible -- Bon Appétit prizes elegance over grandiloquence. It takes a low-key approach to the subject matter at hand -- I don't believe the words "mouth-watering" or "delectable" are part of the mag's vocabulary. It is, in most ways that matter, a fine product that serves its recipe-starved audience well.

I still think it will be the publication to go when parent Conde Nast inevitably pares down its roster of two luxe foodie titles. To me, a guy whose idea of cooking involves two slices of bread and a spreadable substance of some sort, CN sibling Gourmet comes across dopey and self-serious. It celebrates great food, luxuriates in it, almost fetishizes it. It encourages its readers, dotes on them, tells them that they're special because they can, like, sauté a squirrel.

Bon Appétit, on the other hand, mostly presents recipes in a clean, straightforward manner. Guess what's easy to find on the internet? Recipes. I hope I'm wrong, but I expect that Bon Appétit will be the Conde Nast food title looking for a chair when the music stops.

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