Print publications are dead! Long live print publications!
Newspapers and magazines have spent the past few years busily chopping: their publishing frequency, the size of print runs, the number of pages, and in some cases their entire print editions. Earlier this month, New York magazine, one of the most popular big-city weeklies in North America, declared that economic forces had necessitated a shift to a biweekly publishing schedule starting in March.
But as it did so, the staff at Pitchfork Media, the Chicago-based indie-music site that was among the first to challenge the dominance of print magazines in the mid-1990s, were putting the finishing touches on their own new print magazine. The Pitchfork Review, a quarterly printed on high-quality paper stock with a book-type binding, that will run 160 pages in its debut edition, joins other online-only babies that have discovered an atavistic pull to print in their middle age.
Two years ago, the sports-oriented site Grantland launched a quarterly anthology of its best writing. And last week, Newsweek, which only 12 months ago published what it then called its #LASTPRINTISSUE, said it would be back in print in early 2014 with a high-quality publication aimed at 100,000 subscribers rather than the 1.5 million readers it had as recently as 2010.
Pitchfork is taking the step in part as a way of continuing to stand out amid the explosion of content. Though articles and other pieces of content can live forever online, their moment in the public consciousness is usually fleeting – and getting even shorter.
"Even though the content we create and put up every day is so good, there's a lack of permanence in music, in everything at this point that's digital," Pitchfork Media president Christopher Kaskie said in an interview. "We could put up one of the best features in the world, and win awards for things that are 4,000 words online, but that doesn't mean that someone can't just click back or go away."
"Nothing feels like it's worth keeping."
The Pitchfork Review, on the other hand, is intended to be kept even longer than a magazine. And it is priced to defeat the urge to recycle: $19.96 (U.S.) an issue in the United States, in a nod to the year Pitchfork was founded (though it is $33.96 for each copy sent to a Canadian mailing address). Annual subscriptions are $44.99 ($99.99 for Canada).
Its covers will be unlike any other music magazine: no hot band of the moment leering out at the reader, no cover lines pitching specific stories. And while there will be plenty of writing and art ensuring that each issue reflects the previous three months of music culture – about one-third of the content will be repurposed from Pitchfork.com – its editors are aiming for a timeless quality.
That's because they believe the Review, with a circulation of only 10,000, will appeal to the new wave of collectors. Well-crafted print publications have sprung up in recent years for that audience, designed to be collected – and displayed on coffee tables – as much as read. They include interior-design magazine Apartamento and the McSweeney's-published journal of food writing, Lucky Peach.
"We wanted to put our stamp on the world of something you could hold onto and could collect, in the same way you collect vinyl, you collect art – anything of that nature," Kaskie says.
"If you just use a Pitchfork reader as an example" – the site, says Kaskie, has about five million regular monthly readers, whose average age is 27 – "those people know vinyl has seen a huge resurgence, and that it's important, and everyone puts their records out on vinyl, and Jimmy Fallon holds a vinyl record up when a band plays his show. It's where physical music exists now, and that might be the only place it exists in the near future. And that is something that I think people understand."
A similar urge was behind the move in 2006 to create the Pitchfork Music Festival. "We were a digital publication, and had a huge audience online," recalls Kaskie, "but for us, we never got to create a real-life environment for Pitchfork to exist." For three days each summer, Chicago hosts a festival that provides a snapshot of contemporary indie music, where Pitchfork readers replicate their online community in the real world.
If the Review succeeds, it may show the promise of at least one more plank in a business model for media organizations grasping for dependable revenue streams: the serving up, by mass publications, of a variety of different products for small niches within their readership.
"If you look at a conversion analysis for 10,000 subscriptions, based on five-million-plus people that read you on a monthly basis, it's a pretty small percentage," notes Kaskie. "At least initially it may not be for everyone – and maybe never. That's okay."