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While global media magnates agonise about paywalls and how to make money from the Web, more savvy publishers are using it to promote cult titles to great effect. Jim Davies rejoices

Sometimes it’s a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. As the recent redesigns of this august journal and its sister publication Creative Review show, the way for today’s magazines to thrive is not to fight against the digital tide, but to embrace it. Rather than turning your back on the Internet and the blogosphere, and hoping they might go away, it’s far more pragmatic to get better acquainted, and even to use them to your advantage.

Where magazines have the edge over the Internet is that they are finite and manageable. They are by definition edited, whereas trying to get to grips with the infinite scale of the online universe makes your head hurt – it’s the kind of conundrum best left to Stephen Hawking and the rest of the bulging-forehead brigade.

If a magazine is a freshly prepared meal (some are more gourmet than others, admittedly), then the Internet is a colossal, rather badly signposted hypermarket, jam-packed with every conceivable comestible. We’re naturally lazy critters, so if someone’s going to do all the shopping, chopping, peeling and cooking for us, we’ll be more than ready to devour the tasty morsels laid before us. Digests, ’best of the Web’ sections and judiciously chosen snippets from blogs are welcome pointers which save us having to trawl for hours before landing a shiny nugget.

But putting aside this necessary symbiosis, magazines still have the potential to be dynamic and relevant in the digital age – it’s just that these days they need to be a lot more savvy about it. After all, they’re not only competing with each other, but with many alternative media, so, first and foremost, they need to have a clearly defined rationale and point of difference. Are we really surprised that the bottom (so to speak) has fallen out of the lads’ mag market? They’ve been churning out the same diet of soft porn, gadgets, sport and sensationalism for so many years that even their easily pleased readers have moved on. And if you’re after that sort of thing, you really are better served by the Internet.

It’s telling that while circulation figures for mainstream magazines may be dipping, there’s been a resurgence in small, independently published fare which revel in editorial autonomy. Aimed fairly and squarely at a specialist, in-the-know audience, these titles play to their strengths with informed, virtuoso writing and boundary flirting aesthetics. These are the kind of titles celebrated on art director Jeremy Leslie’s excellent Mag Culture blog, which rootles out and critiques the best editorial product from home and abroad. Turning the tables, it’s interesting how the printed medium is so well served and showcased online.

The trouble with many of these cultish titles is that they are hard to find out about and get hold of. Which is where the ingenious Stack comes in. This is a magazine subscription service with a difference. Its mission is simply to deliver to your doorstep a monthly package of anything arcane, interesting and innovative – you can request six, eight or 12 magazines a year.

There’s an element of lucky dip to Stack, but that’s part of the joy of it. To date, I’ve sampled Manzine (a hilarious lo-fi mag which debunks the stereotypical men’s magazine); Fire & Knives (an immaculately produced, beautifully illustrated A5 quarterly which explores food culture); and ’Sup (an achingly cool, culture/fashion mag). They have nothing in common apart from their flair and originality – you can’t argue with that. So where do you sign up for Stack? Online, of course.

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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