It's the end of an era, in the truest sense of the word. net magazine, which has been a source of inspiration for the design & tech community since the early days of the web, is shutting down.
Every day now, you hear about another business closing due to the pandemic. Many of them are local institutions, beloved restaurants and cafes shutting their doors after decades in business. A print magazine, just like that cash-only deli run by the same family for generations, feels like a precious relic from days past. Print was pronounced dead long before this global crisis. But the end of net magazine, a consistent voice since 1994 (when I first fell in love with the internet), seems like the door finally slamming shut.
net magazine played a significant role in my career. Along with Computer Arts, which also printed its last issue this month, it fed my passion for all things design and tech since an early age. Years later, I was lucky enough to contribute to both magazines. So when I heard the news about net mag, I wanted to honor the publication and its editors who both celebrated and shaped the web in its more formative years. Here I talk with Oliver Lindberg, editor at net mag since 2012, about the history of the magazine and the future of print media.
"We love the tactility, touch and of course, smell of holding a print mag in our hands. It’s impossible to recreate that experience online."
Hey Oliver, thanks for talking with us. First, tell us a bit about your work and history with net magazine. You obviously love the web – how did you find yourself editing a print publication?
I kind of fell into it! My background is in magazine journalism, which is what I studied for a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University, and then this job at .net magazine came up. I had always been interested in the web and its incredible versatility. From the beginning, I was fascinated with the web’s community aspect, its DIY mentality, and the abundance of information you could find. The web connected us, and it made it simple for anyone to have a presence online.
When I joined the magazine, it was still a bit of a fanzine for the internet, and it slowly evolved into a leading publication for web designers and developers. I was editor between 2012 and 2016, and subsequently went freelance to work as an independent editor, content strategist and conference curator/organizer. As a print title about the web, net magazine held a unique position. But because readers spent their days staring at screens, they really appreciated being able to move away from them and read about their subject matter in print.
People have said “print is dead” for at least the last 15 years. I’m curious about your opinion here given your experience with net, and as someone very focused on digital. Is there still hope for print media?
Print is certainly dead in many ways now. For net magazine, COVID-19 just accelerated what had been on the cards for a while anyway. Circulations and advertising sales in print have been declining for years, and traditional publishing houses have been struggling to adapt. With 25 years on the newsstand, net magazine had a remarkable run, but I think the era of monthly print magazines, especially niche consumer titles, is clearly over.
That’s not to say that print is dead completely. Some mainstream magazines still have very strong readerships, but commercial specialist mags just can’t compete with the amount of (mostly free) content online, whether it’s blogs, video tutorials, podcasts etc.
Mag closures are often met with a lot of sadness and fond memories. They make us remember how much a mag meant to us and – in net magazine’s case – how influential it was in shaping people’s careers. At the same time, it’s a nostalgic view. We have almost forgotten the value of magazines. If we don’t support and buy them, they are obviously going to disappear.
I’ve started to see a lot of highly independent magazines lately, some of them run by small businesses. I can’t imagine these publications are profitable though – they seem more like a labor of love. I know that’s why I order any print magazines now, simply because it feels special to receive them.
Do you think this is the future of print? More of a specialty than a practicality?
That’s exactly it. Specialist subjects lend themselves perfectly to beautifully-designed indie mags with a small print run and a less regular and demanding publishing schedule. Often printed on great paper stock, it’s still an event when the latest issue lands on your doorstep. We love the tactility, touch and of course, smell of holding a print mag in our hands. It’s impossible to recreate that experience online.
Magazines often also stand out through their art direction. The design of a feature can be a real event, and in digital we’ve been quite restricted. Only recently has CSS evolved enough – with the advent of Grid and Flexbox – to allow us to almost match the layouts that can be achieved in print.
Indie mags don’t tend to last long, though, and yes, it’s not easy to make them profitable. To understand just how much goes into making a sustainable indie print magazine, I recommend checking out this fascinating and very detailed post by Kai Brach, the publisher of Offscreen.
When every publication offers a digital version these days, what makes a print subscription, in your opinion, valuable/worth it? If you could start your own print magazine, would you do it?
The value of a print subscription lies in offering high-quality content that you can’t get anywhere else. Sure, there’s a lot of content online, but there’s a skill involved in professional editing that a lot of digital content is lacking. So much content is being published without having been reviewed by the expert eye of an editor, so it’s often littered in typos and errors. There’s also a lot to be said for the careful curation and compilation of content into one handy package. (See that last sentence for another lost art: the use of alliteration on a magazine cover to attract attention on a busy newsstand!)
I don’t know if I would start my own print magazine these days. Certainly, not as a conventional monthly. If I did it, it would be a passion project that I would pursue alongside other work that pays the bills.
"It feels more valuable because it’s less temporary, less fleeting. And who doesn’t like seeing their name in print?"
With print, there’s a deadline every other month. Ink is being put on paper and it’s permanent; you can’t retract what you said or make changes on the fly. Would you say this is the biggest challenge with print magazines, especially when it comes to the fast-moving tech industry?
Yes, that certainly caused some issues for us! It’s a challenge, and you have to be on your toes to ensure that what you’re publishing doesn’t go out of date immediately, or, worse, is factually incorrect. We therefore had our practical tutorials peer-reviewed by industry experts before going to print. It added to the workload but it made sure we were only publishing the best advice.
The fact that it’s permanent, however, is also one of the unique selling points. It feels more valuable because it’s less temporary, less fleeting. And who doesn’t like seeing their name in print? We always had contributors ask for print copies – for themselves and often for their parents as well.
Print also offers people an opportunity to slow down. Work has sped up massively over the last decade or so, especially in tech, while online content is full of SEO keywords and clickbait. When I worked on net magazine, print allowed us to focus on what matters most – the actual content, which readers could then consume at their own pace.
The biggest challenge for print magazines I’d say is the rising costs, ever-dwindling budgets and lack of advertisers still willing to invest in print. Sadly, there’s not much you can do about that.
Can you recall the days you had some projects on your desk for the .net magazine that you got really excited about? What were your favorite pieces of content to work on – and were those the same the audience appreciated most?
I’ve always been quite hands-on, and so for me, some of the most exciting projects were interviews I conducted myself. For example, I once had the pleasure of meeting Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet." At the time he was planning to take the internet to space!
What I really enjoyed about working on .net magazine was our unrivaled access and the opportunities it opened up. We made a lot of connections at events like SXSW, the Future of Web Design and later, beyond tellerrand. The mag became a real who’s who of the web design community. Over the years we featured everyone who made a name for themselves in the industry, from A like Irene Au to Z like Jeffrey Zeldman, while fostering and uncovering new talent as well. It became a badge of honor to have an article published in .net magazine. The same is true for brand extensions like the .net awards – winning titles such as Designer or Developer of the Year helped boost entire careers, and to this day some wear these titles with pride by mentioning them in their bios.
Lately, I’ve gone back to my roots, and so I contributed as a freelancer to the final issues of net magazine and interviewed such incredibly talented and passionate designers / developers as Chen Hui Jing, Charlie Gerard, and Tim Kadlec. I think what resonated most with net magazine’s audience was that they were learning from the best.
Any parting wisdom or advice for those who still want to believe in print?
If you want your favorite magazines to stick around for a bit longer, make sure you support them before it’s too late. I always thought mags like net offered incredible value – at least in the UK the cost for an issue was equivalent to less than a couple of drinks.
While the traditional newsstand may be dying, it’s really nice to see that independent and specialist titles are still flourishing. In Bath, where I live, we have a beautiful little store called Magalleria, for example, which offers a stunning selection of print mags from around the world that you can also order online. It’s worth checking out Stack as well, which delivers a different independent magazine to your door every month.
So there are plenty of reasons to still believe in print. The less common it is, the more we appreciate the analog beauty of print in a digital world.