The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Magazines, especially about high-tech fields like space, may seem anachronistic in an era of online publications, but they still have advantages over their electronic cousins. (credit: D. Day)

Dead trees and the final frontier

Newspapers are dead. It’s a terminal case. Their subscription numbers are declining across the board and it is clearly only a matter of time before the archaic concept of a thick stack of low-quality, inky papers containing a lot of information that most readers ignore vanishes entirely. Even if the concept itself was not old-fashioned, why pay for information when it is available for free online?

But what about magazines? Are they dying too? After all, why pay for a magazine, when you can get much of the same information on the Internet?

Well, for the glossy photographs of Angelina Jolie, of course.

Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the magazine business is doing well. If you walk into a decent-sized Barnes and Noble or Borders you will encounter hundreds of magazines on dozens of different subjects. If anything, the number of titles seems to have increased in the past decade. There are probably several factors that have caused this, including communications technology that makes some aspects of magazine production far cheaper than in the past (layout and design, for instance, which can now be done faster and primarily in-house), as well as the increasing emphasis on niche marketing. Globalization has also had an impact as well by making foreign magazines easily available at large bookstores, and even blurring the definition of what “foreign” means. For example, a lot of publications printed in Britain are now available in the United States (see, for instance, nearly a dozen magazines devoted to American television shows like “CSI:NY” and “Grey’s Anatomy” that are printed in the UK).

Where do space magazines fit into this calculation? What do they offer that is unique?

Of course, the proliferation of titles at the newsstand may not be a sign of the overall health of the industry, but a result of market fragmentation. Various magazines have been slashing subscription prices in order to hold onto readers, which is surely not a good sign. And advertising revenue is apparently dropping. While it seems probable that some magazines, such as the glossy celebrity gossip magazines featured in supermarket checkout lines, are currently thriving and will persist forever, there are anecdotal indications that not all is well. In the past year I’ve noticed that several aviation-themed magazines have folded (Airpower/Wings and Air Enthusiast), and there is no reason to believe that the magazine business is ultimately any more immune from the internet than newspapers. Not only is the net free, but it is also selective, allowing people to focus only on what they are interested in—like Angelina Jolie’s baby bump—and avoiding exposure to just about everything else—like icky news on the economy, war, and politics.

Where do space magazines fit into this calculation? What do they offer that is unique? And will their unique attributes allow them to survive when so much space news is now available online at zero cost?

You remember space magazines, right? Maybe you had a subscription to one. Once.

Electrons vs. heavy carbon

There are dozens of space websites, and surfing them is easy, especially if (as I learned only relatively recently) you know how to use your browser’s bookmark toolbar and subscribe to RSS feeds. You can surf the best space websites in a minute or two without ever having to type a word into the browser bar. The vast majority of them are free, and updated daily. However, there are a number of inherent problems with getting space information from the web.

The first problem is that very few sites devote most of their webspace and effort to original content. The vast majority of space news websites (and for this discussion I’m excluding commentary/opinion sites and blogs) are little more than collections of links to other websites, occasionally including their own comments or summaries. Although this helps to concentrate stories of a particular subset of space (such as rocket launches), it means that the site itself is simply selecting the content, not directing it nor editing it for content and quality. Sometimes the effects can be subtle, when sites pick up articles based upon their subject matter rather than their actual quality (don’t get me started about Agence France-Presse, whose space articles are consistently error-ridden).

Closely related to this is the fact that many space news sites are filled with press releases, not articles. Of course, that has long been true of many print publications as well. But the combination of links to content that is generated somewhere else, and raw press releases (i.e. no analysis or knowledge value added) means that a lot of what passes for “space news” on the web is mostly collected information; it’s a clipping service, not journalism.

In addition, because of the nature of the medium, web articles tend to be shorter and less detailed than those found in magazines or newspapers. Face it, most people read the web for short periods in between other tasks; few people like to spend an hour reading long articles (how many readers have I lost already because this article is over 500 words long?)

But a bigger problem is that there’s no one-stop shopping site for overall space news on the web. Some sites are devoted to covering space science, others to human space missions, and others to rocket launches. Almost none of them regularly cover all of those topics. Equally important, some subjects are virtually ignored by the space news web, particularly commercial space and military space news. These subjects do get addressed on the web, but only sporadically and incompletely.

The number of print publications devoted exclusively to space is relatively small, and with only a single exception they are not very timely. But if you want detailed knowledge of what is going on in the space field, they are superior to the web.

My guess is that for most people these are not problems. The vast majority of the space-interested public is going to be content with the limited options they have because these options cover most of what they want, they’re free, and they’re fast. Most of the space-interested public is not going to care or notice if a space article was written by a knowledgeable space reporter, by a general reporter working from news releases, or by an idiot (see: Agence France-Presse).

There, are, however, a number of print publications that cover the space field. These are generally more comprehensive than web sources, both in the length and amount of detail in individual articles, and in their coverage. The number of print publications devoted exclusively to space is relatively small, and with only a single exception they are not very timely. But if you want detailed knowledge of what is going on in the space field, they are superior to the web.

What follows is a summary of a number of the most important and best printed space publications. The list includes:

Space News
Novosti Kosmonavtiki
ESA Bulletin
Ad Astra
The Planetary Report
Air & Space
Aviation Week & Space Technology
Space Times
Imaging Notes
Aerospace America
Raumfahrt Concret

This is not an objective list or an objective discussion. I’ll fully admit that the list and my assessment of these magazines reflect my biases and my personal interests, but I try to keep my personal biases to the latter half of each magazine entry. I’ll also admit that I don’t read any of these magazines intensely enough to provide very deep analysis of their editorial policies or content over time. As a disclaimer, I’ll acknowledge that I have written for nearly all of these publications at some point (although I primarily publish space history articles in Spaceflight magazine). Although I think I’ve been able to keep my personal experiences out of my judgments here, I haven’t always had good experiences writing for some of these publications. But that’s a writer’s complaint, not a reader’s perspective.

This list is also not intended to be comprehensive. The list excludes magazines devoted primarily to astronomy (i.e. Sky and Telescope, Astronomy, Astronomy Now, Sky at Night), space journals (the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Space Policy) as well as science publications that frequently include a space-related feature article (i.e. Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics). Arguably, several magazines do not belong on the list because they are primarily aviation magazines with a minority of space content. But they consistently have some space content, which is why they’re on the list. I’m also sure that I’m missing at least one or two trade magazines devoted to the commercial satellite industry, although I don’t know what they are, and my suspicion is that they are primarily devoted to the ground segment rather than things like satellites and the launch industry. (One publication that is not discussed below is Air et Cosmos, because I have not seen a copy in years and did not get any good descriptions of it from my colleagues.)

The best space magazine in the world is Russian, and the most timely, useful, and informative one is American.

This list includes both magazines aimed at enthusiasts as well as those aimed at people who work in the space field. My suspicion is that there is surprisingly little overlap between the readership of these two types of publications—I know plenty of people who work in the space field who have never heard of the enthusiast magazines on this list, and enthusiasts who are unable to afford the high subscription prices for the trade magazines. There is only a little logic applied to the order, with what I consider the best/most important magazines at the top and everything else below.

Because the number of English-language publications is small, this list includes some of the more notable non-English publications as well, including examples from Russia, France, and Germany. European magazines in general, and these examples in particular, are much higher quality than the average American magazine when it comes to paper and photographic quality. But whereas European magazines are occasionally more likely to have jazzier layout than American magazines, they are also more susceptible to going overboard with their graphic design, with the illustrations getting in the way of the text. That’s not the case for these magazines.

All that aside, the best space magazine in the world is Russian, and the most timely, useful, and informative one is American.