Once upon a time, glossy magazines that came enclosed in weekend newspapers fell either into the category of fluff (like Parade, for example), or weighty long-form journalism that complemented the paper itself (like The New York Times Magazine).
But those days may be permanently fading away as major US papers look to take ownership of a broader array of magazine categories. It was reported this week that both USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are in the process of developing glossy magazines that will be distributed in the papers themselves, in a purported quest to capture a larger share of upscale ad dollars.
It must be noted that The New York Times, which is far and away the leading magazine producer of the newspaper world - with not only their traditional weekend magazine, but several sophisticated and chic quarterly publications targeting travel, style, and sports - has had success attracting advertising to its magazines. It should also be noted that they have not done much to keep the company's stock from sinking further into the doldrums.
The fact that USA Today, perhaps the nation's most lightweight major paper, and the Journal, perhaps the heaviest, are both jumping into magazine production is a clear indication that the space has an appeal that can target both high and low culture, and the companies that want to reach denizens on both ends of the spectrum.
USA Today did not return a call seeking comment, and the Journal's corporate communications head Robert Christie declined to comment.
The urge to grab a larger slice of the upscale, "lifestyle" marketing dollar will likely mean that the upcoming magazines will choose to go with lush photo spreads over any hefty editorial content. Even the Grey Lady has chosen that route with its style-focused publications.
So while investors are doubtless hopeful that the magazine sector proves more promising financially than the newspaper sector itself, some media watchers are skeptical that the news-starved public will derive any real benefit from the projects.
"Clearly this is advertiser-driven. So it's hopeful and depressing at the same time," says Syracuse University magazine journalism professor Mark Obbie. "Hopeful because it just might make economic sense... and depressing because it's likely to signal more copycat behavior in the hunt for affluent suburban shoppers, using materialistic fluff as bait rather than providing readers with journalism that tells stories in ways that only a glossy magazine can do."
That stark schism between the quality of journalism at a place like the Journal - where editorial staffers live in constant fear of their jobs as the company is in play, and poorly performing to boot - and the expected airier content of a weekend magazine is an issue that management must address at any paper looking to start a new project like this in such an uncertain time.
Arlene Morgan, associate dean at the Columbia School of Journalism and a former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, notes that the new magazines stand in opposition to the trend of the failure of newspaper metro magazines in places like Miami, San Jose, and Philadelphia, where advertising proved too weak to support a glossy publication.
Morgan applauds the possibility of new magazines in the two papers, but doubts that many others will have the wherewithal to follow in their footsteps.
"Sadly, I do not see this as a trend that will spread to metros," she says. "In these days of cutbacks, I would be surprised to see a publisher spending resources on a magazine when they are doing all they can to keep ads in the newspaper and trying to attract ads to their Web sites. USA Today and The Wall Street Journal are national newspapers [that] can attract the kind of national advertising to underwrite this expense."