Johnson's World: Trains, Magazines, and Portals

September 1, 2016
Steve Johnson of Copresco 54faf2499161d

Have you flown in a plane, ever? Whether you fly once a year for vacation or every week for business, if you’ve been on a commercial flight you’ve seen and read the in-flight magazine of whatever airline you were flying at the time.

In-flight magazines are as ubiquitous on airplanes as barf bags, and they’ve been around just as long.

Their primary purpose appears to be entertainment. As flight became transcontinental and then transoceanic airlines were challenged to occupy the time of passengers.

Drinking and smoking, sumptuous dining, movie theater screens and planes with cocktail lounges have given way to microwaves, the internet, and postcard-sized seatback tv screens but even with more distractions than ever the inflight magazine remains.

Is the inflight magazine doomed, now that we have wifi and literally hundreds of movie choices to entertain us? It appears that the opposite is true.

People fidget. Only printed material can satisfy the need of the seatbound passenger to touch, to feel, to mark with a pen. The glut of digital media becomes overwhelming, and print media feels like a peaceful vacation from the electronic bombardment.

Now Amtrak, the United States’ government-owned rail passenger service, has announced plans to launch its own national inflight, er, in-train magazine. Amtrak is always out to prove that taking the train is as good as or better than flying, and if you can’t make the trains run on time, publishing your own magazine may be the next best thing.

To be sure that they do it right, Amtrak has tapped Ink, the British travel magazine publisher that handles publications for United and American Airlines. Smart move. I actually enjoy United’s magazine Hemispheres more than I enjoy flying United.

“We’re launching a huge print magazine, in a world where everybody is scared of print,” Ink Chief Executive Simon Leslie told The New York Post. “Brands are excited to see what we are going to bring.”

Speaking of magazines, the Atlantic Monthly’s July/August issue (I guess it isn’t monthly after all) went back on press for an unprecedented second printing. This is unheard of for a modern magazine, but newsstand demand was so heavy that a second press run of 25,000 additional magazines was warranted.

“At a time of troubling newsstand performance for many magazines, it was kind of thrilling to order up a second printing for this issue,” Bob Cohn, The Atlantic’s president was quoted as saying in Publishing Executive magazine.

“Even as our website attracts millions and millions of readers, we are especially gratified by the overwhelming response to the print magazine.”

Did you get that? The content is freely available on the Atlantic website, but people want that ink-on-paper magazine in their hands, and they are willing to pay for it.

Something else happened recently that hasn’t received the press one might expect. In a summer when Amtrak launched a print magazine and the Atlantic had to order an additional press run, another media icon is quietly going away.

Yahoo!, once the internet’s most popular website, was bought by cellphone provider Verizon. Oh, I know, the deal won’t close until next year and the website is still up, but it’s over for Yahoo.

Once the world’s preferred search engine (search directory, actually) Yahoo expanded to become, well, a little bit of everything. Yahoo claims to be the highest-read news and media website, which reflects its largely failed strategy to be a “portal” i.e. the website where netsurfers would go to first, no matter what they were looking for.

Such a web portal as Yahoo was supposed to eliminate the need for newspapers, magazines, libraries, even television. Yahoo’s future has been murky for the past decade or better. Verizon will be paying one-tenth of what Microsoft offered for the company only eight years ago.

Let’s put things in perspective. The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857. It has had its ups and downs, but this year the magazine is burning up the newsstands, with every issue significantly topping last year’s sales.

One hundred and fifty-nine years after its founding, the Atlantic is on fire. Twenty-two years after its inception, Yahoo is toast.

Don’t sell your printing press yet.