Magazine publishing has come a long way from its roots, evolving and adapting to changing technologies, demographics, and reader preferences. Nothing compares, however, to the changes it has undergone over the past two decades, with the advent of digital technologies. Yet, given magazine publishing’s rich history, don’t plan on abandoning print any time soon.
A brief history of print magazines
Magazines did not take shape until more than 200 years after the printing press appeared in the 15th century. Precursors of the first magazines included pamphlets, bulletins, and almanacs. One of the earliest magazines was a German gazette that lasted five years, inspiring others in neighboring countries to establish their own magazines, most of which were geared toward intellectuals.
Creators soon realized that a regular, consistent publication schedule and content geared to readers with a specific interest was more valuable and cost-efficient, and the first periodicals were born. In an age when early magazines were written for intellectuals, the first entertainment magazine made a splash. It was published in France and, with its combination of gossip, song, and news content, became quite popular.
In fact, the first magazines were a cross between news sources and entertainment. Even these early entertainment-focused publications were considered high-brow, intended for more culturally advanced and wealthier patrons.
During the 18th century, rising literacy rates helped magazines flourish, more people, especially women, sought out these publications as sources of knowledge and entertainment. When magazines reached U.S. shores in 1741, Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Bradford rushed to be the first to publish the first American magazine. With backgrounds in newspapers, both hurried to the task and released their first issues only three days apart. Although Bradford took the cake, neither magazine lasted longer than six months. Still, these entrepreneurs introduced Americans to magazine fever and there were over 100 magazines in print by the end of the century.
As printing and distribution costs became more manageable, publishers began printing magazines multiple times a week. Although they more closely resembled newspapers from a modern-day view, magazine readership increased dramatically and mass-appeal magazines lifted readership from the elite classes to broader audiences. As prices continued to decrease and circulation expanded, people saw opportunity.
Along with that opportunity came eager readers ready to consume industry-specific materials and entertaining articles, leading to specialized magazines. While early versions were for those in specific professions — publishers had great success with family, children’s, and women’s magazines as well as special interest periodicals aimed at doctors, lawyers, artists, and other professionals — magazines shifted to special interests in the 1900s, and many magazine publishers started accepting advertising.
The 20th century transformed publishing once again by bringing new types of magazines, including news, business, and picture magazines, which grew to dominate the industry and attract huge audiences. Subscription sales overtook newsstand and per-issue sales. Then came digital, truly the most game-changing event in magazine publishing’s chronology. Yet, all these changes have helped the industry evolve into a dynamic, multi-faceted, and thriving industry with a place for both print and online content.
Throughout history, print magazine publishing has adapted to changing technologies and consumer preferences to remain a relevant publishing medium. Almost 600 years after the printing press spawned the publishing industry, print magazines continue to inspire, educate, and entertain readers around the globe. They continue to evolve to the nature of our changing world. By keeping up with and adapting to changes, the printing industry has remained a consistent, relevant force in publishing and will continue doing so.
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