What is a Magazine?

Alma L. Figueroa

Everyone has a stack of old magazines lying around the house somewhere, and whether you’re walking past a newsstand in the mall or sitting in the dentist’s office, you’re going to be tempted to pick up a magazine and flip through the pages. Magazines are everywhere, but what are they exactly?

On one hand, magazines are a mechanism for providing people with current information on a broad range of topics on a regular basis – usually monthly, but in some cases even weekly.

However, the word magazine was originally used to indicate a storehouse for grain or gunpowder, so how did the term come to be associated with a periodical publication?

The first periodical to use the word magazine in its title was started in London by Edward Cave in 1731. Cave used the word magazine in the name of his ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ to suggest that this new publication was a storehouse of information, providing all the news that a civilized person needed in order to keep up to date on what was going on in the world. Cave’s magazine was tremendously successful, and within a few years several spin-off publications began to appear in London and in the United States.

Magazines have gone through a complex evolution over the years, and it is instructive to think of magazines as belonging to one of three distinct categories: trade, news, and consumer.

Trade magazines are designed to inform the members of a particular professional or occupational group, of items of specific interest to them. Individuals and businesses purchase subscriptions to trade magazines, and most of the content is written by and for people in the trade – for example, accountants or school teachers. These magazines are generally not available to the general public, and any advertising that they may contain (usually not much) tends to be directed at members of that trade.

News magazines, which in the case of publications like ‘Time’ or ‘The Economist’ are often published weekly, are directed at a broad readership. These magazines are designed to provide a single source through which readers can catch up on news, current events, and hot topics. They are available in bookstores, at newsstands, as well as by subscription, and the moderate amount of advertising that they contain is quite varied with respect to products displayed, and quite general in terms of the approach taken in the ads.

The vast majority of modern magazines fall into the consumer category, and these magazines are directed at highly specific segments of the population, whether dog-lovers, gardeners, brides-to-be, or people who want to get rich. Consumer magazines usually contain a number of small articles that deal with topics of interest to the targeted group, but in most instances the bulk of available space is devoted to advertising.

In consumer magazines, advertisers have the opportunity to pitch well-defined mixes of products, in a way that speaks directly to the targeted group. For the marketer, this means that they are getting maximum penetration with their message, and for publishers this means that they can rely on the advertisers to generate the bulk of their revenue stream. With consumer magazines, actual sales of the magazine are a secondary consideration. What matters is that potential advertisers think that, through magazines, information about their products is getting directly into the hands of those people who are most likely to purchase what they are selling.

Every time you pick up a magazine that catches your interest, even if only to browse through it briefly, you are one step closer to buying something, and if magazines are doing what they are designed to do that something is not going to be the magazine.

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