Print magazines are becoming more luxurious on their way to obsolescence, says former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. Speaking at the "Quickie" performance evening in San Francisco, Truman talked about why he left Condé Nast and what he's learned about the future of print publishing. Hint: It has to do with horses, star-gazing and Burning Man.
The former "Prince of Condé Nast," Truman said he left the company in 2004, when he felt overcome with an overwhelming sense of sadness - which he said was another way of saying he saw 10 years of brutal cost-cutting on the horizon. He fled to Morocco, where he contemplated the future of publishing and, by the sound of things, read a lot of Marshal McLuhan.
Here's what he decided about print magazines: they're becoming obsolete, but the final stage along that path is to become luxury items. Look at horses, which became obsolete as a form of transportation after the car came along. The upkeep and gear for a horse used to be affordable to the average family, but now it's a luxury bestowed on Muffy in the Hamptons on her sixteenth birthday. Similarly, the stars used to be the only means of telling directions, until the invention of the compass. Now, the stars are only there for aesthetic appreciation and fortune-telling. (There may have been a bit of tongue-in-cheekness here.) And barter was the way everybody did business, until the invention of money - at which point barter became a luxury enjoyed by rich hipsters. (And at this point in his slideshow, Truman showed a picture of Burning Man.)
So it is with print magazines, which have been superseded by improved technology. They won't go away, but there will be fewer of them and they'll be more expensive. They'll be more like books, in fact. The magazine publishing business is being transformed by super-ninjas like Armani and Karl Lagerfeld. Although, Truman felt constrained to point out, Karl Lagerfeld is not actually a real ninja.
As magazines get to be more of a luxury item, they'll become more fetishistic and less connected to utility. And there will be more worship of the past. Truman talked about how, at Vanity Fair, the sexy pictures of Angelina Jolie had always been the most popular feature, but the spreads of old photos of events like Truman Capote's black-tie soirees were a major part of the magazine's appeal and lent it more of an air of class to the magazine.
Oddly enough, Truman is the second publishing professional I've heard compare magazines to horses in the past year. The other was ZYZZYVA editor Howard Junker, who compared literary magazines to ponies at a lit-mag forum, to make a similar point: people keep magazines around because they like to look at them there's a certain cache to possessing the physical object. But they don't serve any real purpose any more. We're only four years into Truman's ten years of horrendous belt-tightening, don't forget.