Auto-Editorial Stimulation: The magazine-anniversary problem.

Media criticism.
May 16 2006 6:59 PM

Auto-Editorial Stimulation

The magazine-anniversary problem.

Rolling Stone's 1000th issue. Click image to expand.

As if governed by a calendar set to the base-five system, the average American magazine puts everything aside every half decade to throw itself a very public party in its own pages.

From Computerworld (35) to Forbes (85), New York (35) to Science (125), Playboy (50) to Public Citizen (30), The New Yorker (75) to Mother Jones (25), magazines everywhere heed the calendar's call. Publishers love the self-valentines because they make the anniversary issue a "destination" for advertisers—much easier to sell than the crap that's published the rest of the year. Editors love the "looking back on our rich history"-quality of milestone mags because nobody can say no to onanism.

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The Atlantic, whichis turning 150, has so much to celebrate that it's devoting a few pages to auto-editorial stimulation in every issue this anniversary year, with looks back at what it published by Virginia Woolf, John Muir, Robert Frost, John Maynard Keynes, Peter Drucker, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and others. The Atlantic is taking its act on the road, too, with a "live tour—to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C." in which it will convene "great thinkers and prominent members of the public to exchange ideas and share in the celebration."

Bring your own Kleenex.

The most shameful of the self-celebrating magazines—at least this month—is Rolling Stone. The magazine last observed a birthday, its 35th, in May 2003, putting it on track for a 40th-anniversary ish in 2008. But rejecting the limitations of the base-five calendar, Rolling Stone has chosen to fete itself with a 1,000th issuecommemoration. Now on the newsstand, it boasts a cover that combines the 3Dness of the LP jacket for Their Satanic Majesties Requestwith the group portraiture of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Anniversary apologists—you know who you are—admire these milestone editions. They'll tell you that even the best magazine cycles through a new audience of readers a couple of times a decade, so not all of them know about the periodical's legacy. What better time to rehash the past and educate the newbies to the magazine's "culture"? And, the anniversary issue gives the staff a brilliant excuse to produce a fantastic issue.

But like birthday parties thrown by the birthday boy, anniversary issues tend to overindulge the honoree. Rolling Stone's self-regard—never small to begin with—gets amplified on every page: the gallery of famous Rolling Stone covers in the 1,000th issue, former staff photographer Annie Leibovitz's special memories, and other admiring looks back. Rolling Stone last paid tribute to itself three years ago, making the current issue as significant an event as the Golden Globe Awards. Will the magazine dare produce a 40th-anniversary issue two years hence? Need you ask?

In the interest of disclosure, I must mention that the mad maw of anniversary issues events will swallow Slate this summer as it turns 10. We will venerate ourselves with a best of Slate book, imaginatively titled The Best of Slate, a hellzapoppin special 10th-anniversary issue, and a 3D forum in New York City in which a virtual Michael Kinsley will leap nude out of a real cake. We're having a real Kinsley jump out of a virtual cake for our 11th-anniversary waltz.

Anniversary-issue specialness—if it ever existed—vanished long ago, done in by the surplus of birthday books. As I survey my local newsstand, I begin to wonder if all those magazine editors expected presents in return from me. Nobody in magazine publishing will say no to anniversary issues until readers do, and based on the local evidence, I don't think that day has arrived. Rolling Stone Issue No. 1,000 is sold out in these parts of downtown Washington.

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