The past few weeks have shocked the world of magazines. Top editors—Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, Cindi Leive at Glamour, Nancy Gibbs at Time, and Robbie Myers at Elle—have announced departures from their high-profile posts. Hugh Hefner now holds court at the Playboy Club in the Sky, a penthouse away from S.I. Newhouse, the just-departed editor-friendly chief of Conde Nast (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Vogue, and others). Major companies—Time Inc. (People and a roster of hall-of-fame titles) and Rodale (Prevention, Men's Health) are exploring sales. So is Rolling Stone, itself a magazine wrapped around the persona of its founder and 50-year presence, Jann Wenner.
At a monthly get-together of media pros, the editor of this magazine (Jackson) and a Rolling Stone alumni who's consulted or written for many titles and teaches about them (Peck) used this confluence of change to muse about which "books" had been significant then and now. Using Rolling Stone's 50 years of publishing as an arbitrary separator,* we've come up with rationales for two sets of Significant Sixteen magazines that have shaped politics and culture (and have done some of the best work covering—and uncovering—issues of social and environmental justice for readers).
Our half-century intermezzo has witnessed the dominance of television, the Internet, and mobile, as well as changing taste and business models. Consequently, only three titles appear on both lists. If nothing else, the shifts between '67 and '17 demonstrate how most magazines follow a life cycle: often-difficult births, brash youthfulness, midlife success, and retirement at the back of the newsstand rack—or solely in the archives.
We realize that "significance" is a squishy qualifier. Let us know whether or not you agree with our choices.
The Atlantic (founded in 1857): An important observer of American politics. A narrow victor over Harper’s.
The Atlantic: Continued thought leadership, rewarded as the 2016 "Magazine of the Year" by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It's also a pioneer in digital and events spinoffs.
Better Homes & Gardens (1922): The voice of the heartland family. Chosen over Good Housekeeping (1885) and its seal of approval by the width of a butter knife.
Better Homes & Gardens: In an era of shrinking circulations, BH&G remains a titan with its seven-million-plus circulation and reach beyond the coasts.
Ebony (1945): An unfiltered point of view for a rising black middle class. Beauty products emerged as an early parallel brand.
Bloomberg Businessweek (2009): Reinvented from Business Week after the 2008 recession, it provides innovative, unfettered takes on corporate life.
Esquire (1933): A definer of literary taste and the participatory "New Journalism" of the 1960s that was imitated by many others.
BuzzFeed (2006): This digital start-up moved from click-bait to serious but far from solemn journalism, plus user-generated contributions.
Fortune (1929): "The business of America is business," Calvin Coolidge said during the 1920s. Fortune went on to chronicle the growth of corporate America and inspire a raft of general-business and personal-finance titles.
Cosmopolitan (1965 / initially 1886): Spurred by the late Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmo's frisky if only quasi-feminist take on sex appears in 64 international editions.
Life (1936): From the time Henry Luce bought and revamped a small humor title, until TV and the economics of the magazine business ended its weekly publishing in 1972, the oversized Life defined photojournalism in print to as many as 13 million buyers and subscribers a week.
The Economist (1843): This "newspaper's" international, free-market mix of must-have and off-the-news topics comes across as your serious yet wry colleague. Half the circulation in now outside the United States.
Mad (1952): Spoofing mass culture in a post-comic book format empowered a generation of kids to question The System.
Men's Health (1987): Reputedly the world's largest men's magazine brand, its mix of health, sex, fashion, and abs appears in 59 countries.
National Geographic (1888): Picture-driven content provided a window on a weird and wonderful world. It would later build a formidable website.
Mother Jones (1976): Emerging as a force in progressive politics, MoJo breaks investigative and data-driven stories across publishing platforms.
National Review (1955): William F. Buckley's baby unified and shaped American conservatism.
New York (1968): Crisply capturing the pop and pizazz of its home town, it's the leader in the city and regional magazine field.
The New Yorker (1925): From "Hiroshima" to "Silent Spring," from fiction to the cartoons, The New Yorker became the avatar of Upper West Side consciousness.
The New Yorker (1925): Revived after its 1985 purchase by Conde Nast, the magazine is an important part of both the local and national conversation.
Playboy (1953): Hefner created an aspirational world of sophistication, within which ordinary Joes could fantasize about getting next to a bubbly, pneumatic Girl Next Door. The zeitgeist passed it by, but the interviews were, in fact, worth reading.
People (1974): Amid the plethora of celeb titles and reality-TV shows it spawned, People attracts what's reportedly the largest U.S. magazine audience by getting next to the stars and celebrating the exploits of ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things.
Reader's Digest (1920): An early example of what we now call curated content, the title became a one-stop for mainstream readers seeking quick middlebrow insights and tips on wholesome living.
ProPublica (2007): Non-profit yet well funded, this shop raises the bar for Pulitzer Prize-level investigative coverage online and in print through its many mainstream media partners.
Saturday Evening Post (1821): Though approaching a downside by 1967, the Post combined middlebrow non-fiction and fiction. Its 300 Norman Rockwell covers quietly moved America toward a multicultural future.
Real Simple (2000): Out-of-the-office content for busy career women, marked by an airy design that suggests home is a place to relax, not a second job.
Sports Illustrated (1954): Chronicling the rise of sports as a big-time, big-money enterprise, SI traded box scores for fine writing and startling photography.
GQ (1931): As Esquire shifted to a fashion bible for men, the other wide-reaching men's monthly brought new energy to the celebrity profile genre while investing in deeply reported feature stories.
Time (1923): Time, especially among the newsweeklies, brought order to an unruly world with what came to be known as The Voice of God.
Vanity Fair (1983 / initially 1913): Tina Brown and Graydon Carter honed a high-low mix of celebrity, investigations, columnists, edgy photography, and somewhat irritating royals into a slick-paper ride on your rich friend's yacht.
Vogue (1892): The definer of runway fashion, abetted by photographers such as Richard Avedon—even before Anna Wintour took the helm.
Teen Vogue (2003): Technically overseen by the larger Vogue mothership, this small-format quarterly has found a big audience covering social justice issues that others shy away from.
*Editor's Note: Cosmopolitan, which would capture a sex-positive if non-feminist worldview, started only in 1965; again, Rolling Stone began in 1967. H/T to Wikipedia for supplying start-up dates for most print titles.