Physical newspapers, radio shows and television programmes have dominated our lives for a long time, but digitalisation and rapid online developments are threatening to replace them. One part of contemporary online culture that has emerged in the past few years is the rise of online magazines- all created, produced and distributed by the youth. To what extent is this occasion significant and is it influencing traditional journalism?
The connection between online magazines and traditional journalism is rarely studied, with most studies about online magazines discussing its relevance for self-expression. Moreover, studies often focus on how online media influences the youth rather than how the youth makes use of the media (Chu, 1997). This article talks about the unique presentation of youth-led online magazines and the ways traditional notions of journalism are redefined by youth journalists through citizen witnessing. We will see whether online magazines are a suitable replacement for traditional news media or whether the distinctions between the two prevent them from being in the same journalistic category.
What are online magazines?
An ‘online magazine’ consists of journalistic content initiated, created and polished by journalists but instead of printing them physically, journalists upload them online. Online magazines are distributed on digital platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, but most online magazines also have websites. Most of these online magazines are youth-led and also target youths, as we will see later.
The word ‘zine’ is sometimes used to refer to online magazines. It derives from the word magazine and is usually the work of an individual or a small group. According to MINDOVERMATTER’s description of a zine, it is a “small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images” (MINDOVERMATTER, 2020).
The 'physical zine' has a rather rich history: it was the revolution of the do-it-yourself culture and an outlet promoting freedom of speech. It was popularised at the start of the 1930s but the creation of zines can be traced back to 1517 (Zobl, 2004). The main idea behind their creation was to allow people to express themselves on matters outside what is seen as important by the mainstream media, and to allow people to advocate for what they believe in, be it punk music or feminism.
Zines are symbolic of the division between the mainstream culture and subcultures, and producers of zines have the freedom of creating any type of publication they desire. Although online zines have to comply with the algorithmic rules to "perform" well, zine creators still have much more freedom in what they create compared to traditional journalists. Instead of writing about mainstream culture to attract readers and viewers, creators of contemporary zines try to utilise other affordances to attract them, some of which will be discussed below.
There are similarities to the way traditional magazines such as ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Teen Vogue’ have shifted to posting on their website the articles they print physically, but the online magazines we will analyse in this article were specifically initiated for online production. Everything produced stays within the digital boundary and uses social media to fulfil the means of distribution and audience uptake (unless a physical zine is also printed).
Defining online magazines in the field of journalism
As we use our phones to carry out more of our daily activities, our news consumption culture has also shifted. We find and read news online, and can tailor what kinds of news articles we want to read based on our preferences. Reading news online is fast, readily accessible and also easily shareable, all of which are features that appeal to our contemporary lifestyles that prioritise speed and convenience.
But although online magazines have recently grown in numbers and popularity, they cannot be regarded as a replacement of traditional journalism. The types of news we obtain from online magazines are not the breaking news stories we see in mainstream media. They are generally not major sites where readers obtain important updates, but rather creative outlets facilitating freedom of expression. Topics covered in online magazines vary from broad-topic articles about ethnicity and romantic relationships to specified topics like bubble (boba) tea.
Traditional journalists and youth journalists perform different roles and contribute differently to society- the former objectively informs the public with what is happening while the latter subjectively amplifies youth voices.
Although online magazines have recently grown in numbers and popularity, they cannot be regarded as a replacement of traditional journalism
Articles in online magazines centre around opinions, reviews and issues surrounding our contemporary culture. Some articles may be related to breaking news, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, but the content of the article will not contain detailed facts about a current event. Instead, they voice the opinions and emotions of the writer, and this is one important point that distinguishes youth-led online magazines from traditional news media.
Online magazines depend wholly on social media for their production, distribution and even creation. They get initiated online and only produce physical magazines or zines as a special event. In contrast, traditional news media have adapted to social media utilisation only recently, and have social media as a side focus to help run their traditional outlets like TV shows or print magazines.
Online magazines do not require subscriptions from their readers and their websites do not run on advertisements from brands or other sites. Their website runs independently and thus appears cleaner and neater without advertisements. This is different from traditional news media, whose websites are supported by paid advertisements. We can usually distinguish advertisements from content, as they are typically located on the sides of the website, but some brands sponsor journalists to mention their brand in the content produced.
With the editorial decision to not be supported by paid advertisements, online magazines need to find other methods to keep the magazine up and running. Articles in online magazines have to appeal to the audience, which leads to articles with highly unique topics accompanied by strong words and pictures. Audience metrics become the driving force of online magazines and the higher the audience metrics, the better it is for the online magazine.
Another way of obtaining financial support is to sell products. BobbleHaus’ website also features its own shop, where people are able to buy pieces of clothing, clothing accessories and jewellery. Other online magazines like Lithium Magazine opted to sell physical prints of their magazine. One editorial decision leads to further choices that determine how the magazines will appear to their audiences.
The youth journalists
It was previously mentioned that the writers of online magazines are primarily young. Youth journalists tend to write about topics that are unique and different from what is written by traditional journalists. Their articles are heavily opinionated and emotional, making them very personalised. In this way, youth journalists can be considered citizen journalists that carry out citizen witnessing.
Citizen witnessing is the action of experiencing, or bearing witness to an event that occurred, done by normal citizens and the information obtained is observed from the first-person point of view. Witnessing is a two-step process, in which sensory experience begins the process and proceeds to the discursive act of interpreting and responding by the witness. Witnessing involves various participants, resulting in a “more concrete and reality-driven” (Allan, 2016) report. It is also done for the benefit of those who were not present at a particular scene.
But instead of having to go outside to bear witness, youth journalists usually obtain source material from the Internet and then use the information acquired to report and discuss digital practises- the Internet has become a world to explore. Among all the trends, profiles and flows of data that can easily be acquired online, youth journalists are doing a rather incredible job of choosing their topics to write about.
In online magazines, each journalist writes about a personal experience or about their views about a certain issue. They may write about activities that can be done alone, like watching movies, or matters that are not so personalised like voting. Citizen witnessing is seen to provide audiences with “what are frequently vivid, personalised insights, the emotive affectivity of which being difficult, if not impossible, to convey within the time-worn conventions of scrupulously objective reporting” (Allan, 2016). The differing interests of youth journalists and personalisation of what they write cause the variety of topics they cover.
One example of citizen witnessing can be seen in Wen Hsiao’s article about ‘stooping’ in Amsterdam (figure 3). In the article, Hsiao mentioned her practice: “actively look for any stoop-worthy furniture to snap photos of and have successfully found a few gems” (Hsiao, 2020). This implies that Hsiao had done the activity she has written about herself, thus proving that the article originates from her personal experiences of ‘stooping’.
By sharing that she herself had tried ‘stooping’ and sent her finds to a ‘stooping’ account, she is indirectly suggesting that her readers try the same activity. Sharing and encouraging others to do the same activity is one reason why people bear witness. Other motivations include bearing witness as a civil duty, where people may find that bearing witness to a certain occasion is their responsibility as a citizen, and capturing moments that rarely occur because not everyone can experience the event at the same time.
From this example we can also infer that the “heaviness” of bearing witness is often reduced by contemporary online culture. The social media culture that we practise nowadays with the help of advancing technology portrays the importance of oneself. We do what we want online, we watch what we like and we follow who we want. This leads to social media being a space of self-reflection, and then sharing and connecting with your acquaintances online so as to show them more things about us as individuals.
Citizen witnessing is particularly appealing for youth journalists since many of them are students, self-employed or earning limited money. With citizen journalism, journalists are free to use any type of resources they have while expenses are minimised, with the Internet and their personal opinions the main sources of information. How their work is perceived online in the wider society depends on how they present them on social media, which is their main mode of production. And of course, youth journalists have put their own twist on news presentation to attract an audience.
Youth journalists’ unique ways of news presentation
There are many reasons as to why youth journalists choose social media platforms to facilitate the production and distribution of their articles. Social media provides resources like programmes and lessons to enable youth journalists to create their own content. As independent journalists that do not rely on advertisements and endorsements, youth journalists need to pay particular attention to how they appeal to their readers.
One important point to consider is the visual presentation, as people are presented with pictures or cover art before reading the article. Pictures not only need to be aesthetically pleasing but also have to relate to the topic the article is covering. What is regarded as ‘aesthetic’ also varies on the current trend, and youth journalists are required to keep updated with the newest style preferences.
Many online magazines and zines utilise bright colours, bold graphics and explicit pictures to capture the attention of readers. Moreover, young journalists also use titles with interrogation techniques and imperative sentences, as if talking directly to the readers. These titles use strong and explicit phrases, such as “So Your Family is Racist” (Hsiao, 2020) and “Why Motherhood Scares Me Shitless” (Rudalevige, 2020).
Social media is also less filtered to the extent that users are technically free to post and say anything they want, including profane words or explicit pictures. The Internet is also not a platform where youths get judged for what they enjoy and believe in- youths have extensive freedom online, much unlike real life where youths are surrounded by boundaries of what they can and cannot do. Online magazines allow youth journalists to freely express what they like using whichever words they want to use, with any pictures they find suitable. This way, articles can be highly personalised and tailored to what each writer is interested in.
Online magazines allow youth journalists to freely express what they like using whichever words they want to use, with any pictures they find suitable.
Online articles need to be ‘shareworthy’ to adhere to social media’s logic of ‘virality’. Strong language, explicit pictures and powerful visuals are methods of attempting to attract readers in a way that will increase their curiosity (“How deep will the article about a taboo topic go?” or “Wait, are people actually thinking this?”) and guide readers to construct opinions agreeing or disagreeing with the issue covered in the articles. Thus, articles with personalised content filled with emotions and opinions are “necessary in order to get the public involved” (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019) as it stimulates readers to voice out their own opinions.
As readers think “I thought I was the only one who thought this,”, they want to receive support from their acquaintances who share the same views and ideologies and see who disagrees. This stimulates them to share the articles on their social media accounts. Sharing content on social media is also a way of self-presentation, to inform acquaintances about what views and ideologies one believes in and how they feel about these issues (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019).
Emotional news also travels around social media faster because it is a good way of attracting sympathy from readers and thus increases reader’s time engagement. Moreover, youth journalists are well aware of which issues are arousing emotions in their readers (Beckett, 2015). This connection between youth journalists, their writings and their readers enables emotional stories to be brought closer to readers, and to be valued.
Although youth journalists are familiar with current trends and know what kinds of stories readers prefer, not all issues appeal to every reader. Social media is tailored to show what users prefer, with the help of algorithms and data collected from user activity. Because online magazines and zines are based on social media, most readers will not see and read every article posted. There are various ways to obtain news articles, but readers do not necessarily have to closely follow social media accounts of online magazines to be updated about new articles- they may even come across articles by accident.
How we accidentally come across online magazines
Coming across online magazine articles by accident is called ‘incidental news consumption’ (Boczkowski et al., 2018). It is when people obtain news without actually searching for that piece of news, in other words stumbling upon a story. The Internet and social media made way for more news consumption to become incidental, as it motivates its users to continuously check for new updates and this may make us come across online magazine articles.
Our social media feeds are also algorithmically tailored to content that we prefer to keep us engaged for a long period of time. By having the ‘always on’ social media culture, we utilise social media to kill time and go deeper into the depths of particular content. There is no longer a specific time for news consumption, for example waiting for the radio news or reading the morning paper. Online, content is updated continuously. Sooner or later, one post will lead to a chain of other posts, some of which may be posts from online magazines.
Online magazines do not rely on celebrity endorsement or mass advertisement. Instead, they depend on word-of-mouth and social media dissemination. This is why articles in online magazines need to have unexpected topics, use strong words and have eccentrically empowering visuals. Because social media is comparable to a highway that is used for high-speed information sharing, online magazines need to capture the attention of its potential readers when they accidentally come across an article.
Apart from the targeting by algorithms, incidental news consumption can also occur when we see what our followers and influencers have posted and shared. The fact that we normally have at least one electronic gadget with us makes us constantly connected to our acquaintances. Our social media contacts serve as our “filters of news” (Boczkowski et al., 2018) and in most cases, we have trust in what our acquaintances say and post, so we are willing to look further into what they have shared. What is shared usually only consists of a picture, a headline or a short text about the article. As we click and swipe our screens to find out more, we are quick to decide whether the article interests us or not. If not, the option to leave the page is easily provided.
Because of incidental news consumption, news consumption is usually only partial and short (Boczkowski et al., 2018). This is-again- why pictures and texts accompanying an article play important roles in its circulation, as previously discussed. It helps us decide what news we want to read and also which topics we want to dive deeper into.
Online magazines are not here to replace traditional journalism; they are here to stay
Online magazine revolution
Online magazines have succeeded in creating a distinct style of journalism. It is not here to replace traditional journalism; it is simply here to stay. We have seen how youth journalists carry out citizen witnessing to produce personalised and shareworthy articles. Moreover, incidental news consumption was discussed to compare how consumption of online magazines works, with examples of BobbleHaus and Lithium Magazine.
Incorporating social media platforms and magazines is a great way of appealing to the ever-changing nature of news consumption, and the fact that online magazines are dominated by youth journalists calls for a great transformation in online culture. Online magazines will evolve over time, just like traditional journalism has changed, and we will see how youth journalists will go on revolutionising online magazines.
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Boczkowski, P. J., Mitchelstein, E., & Matassi, M. (2018). “News comes across when I’m in a moment of leisure”: Understanding the practices of incidental news consumption on social media. New media & society, 20(10), 3523-3539.
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Rudalevige, E. (2020, September 30). Why motherhood scares me shitless. Lithium Magazine.
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