AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   August/September 2012

A Long Love Affair With Magazines   

Samir Husni, aka Mr. Magazine, sees a bright future for the objects of his affection. Thurs., April 5, 2012.

By Bill Braun
Bill Braun (billbraun711@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Samir Husni has been carrying on a well-publicized love affair for almost half a century. It's one of his greatest passions, and he has no intention of quitting any time soon. Oddly enough, his wife knows about it and is completely cool with it.

Husni, 59, is widely regarded as the United States' leading authority on magazines. So much so that he has officially trademarked his nickname, "Mr. Magazine."

A graduate of the journalism program at Lebanese University/Beirut, Husni says he fell in love with magazines at a young age. It all began when he and two friends decided to pool their money and buy the first issue of Superman when it was launched in Arabic in the early 1960s.

"When I walked with my friends to buy that issue of Superman, I was in love at first sight," he says. "I still remember the moment I opened that magazine, with the smell of fresh ink, and started flipping pages. I experienced for the first time holding a story in my hands.

"For the first time, I felt I was in control of the story page by page. No longer was I a passive listener, or being forced to read [for homework], but for the first time I experienced the art of storytelling in my own hands at my own pace. I was smitten."

While his friends "fell in love with the flying man," he adds, "I fell in love with the comic itself. As I grew older, I grew from comics to magazines and newspapers, and by the time I got to high school, I was determined to be a journalist."

While many are concerned about the future of print in the digital era, Husni has no worries that his faves are an endangered species. "Magazines in a digital age will continue to thrive and excel," he says.

But there is pressure on magazines to improve both their content and their format. Husni says they must strive to become collector's items, with better paper and larger sizes, rather than disposable products. "Printed magazines have to become best in class or second best," he says. "Third and fourth best will not do."

And he believes the advent of tablets presents magazines with new targets of opportunity. "I am a firm believer that we need for each platform to be necessary, sufficient and relevant," he says. "We are creating brands that are going to thrive on experiences. Magazines on mobile or tablets are a completely different experience."

Husni thinks too much is often made of the supposed rivalry between old and new forms of media. "This division older people have between digital and analog does not exist in the younger generation," he says. "My grandson Elliott loves watching movies and playing Angry Birds on his iPad, but he will sit down and read his magazines, and will read books at bedtime. At no point is he thinking, 'I'm moving from digital to analog.' "

After that encounter with Superman so long ago, Husni moved quickly to cement his relationship with magazines. While enrolled at Lebanese University, he managed to stay at the top of his class while simultaneously working at two of them as well as at a newspaper. After graduating and getting married, he learned that his top marks made him eligible for a scholarship to continue his education in the U.S.

With the prospect of an advanced degree in front of him and the civil war in Lebanon, Husni and his wife, Marie, moved to America, where he began to work toward a master's degree in journalism at what is now the University of North Texas.

Husni solidified his yearning for magazines on his first day of classes in the U.S. "The first question the professor asked me was what my area of interest was, and I immediately said it was magazines," he recalls. "He told me to go to the library and get a book called 'The Intimate History of Time Inc.'... It ended up being two huge volumes. I picked them up on Friday and needed to present on the books on Tuesday. I spent the entire weekend reading."

He said what he learned in these books was what he needed to know: The world of magazines was where his heart was. "I started buying every issue of whatever magazine arrived in that period," he says.

After completing his master's, Husni went on to the University of Missouri to get his Ph.D. in journalism. "When I got to Missouri and told them I wanted to do my Ph.D. in magazines, they looked at me like I lost my mind. I convinced them I really wanted to do it, and they constructed a program for me that would let me do a concentration in magazine journalism. I wanted to study what made a magazine succeed and what made a magazine fail."

By the time he had finished at Texas, Husni had amassed a collection of 234 first issues of various magazines, which he would end up using for his dissertation.

After Husni completed his Ph.D. in 1983, his family, which now also included a child, stayed in the U.S. rather than return to a Lebanon that was still in the midst of war. However, finding a job proved to be rather difficult.

"We eventually started packing and were convinced we were moving back to Lebanon. We even had a garage sale," Husni says. "No matter how much I knew about the subject, all that seemed to matter was that I'm not from this country."

Then came the phone call. Arriving home one day in April 1984, Husni was informed by his wife that someone from the University of Mississippi had called four times looking for him. Luckily, he was home for the fifth call.

While interviewing for a position at Drake University, Husni attended a meeting with the Meredith Corp., whose publications at the time included Better Homes & Gardens. Though he did not get the job at Drake, he made a lasting impression on Ken McDougall, Meredith's director of community relations. When Meredith gave a grant to the University of Mississippi for a magazine program, it recommended that Husni be brought on board.

"I was finally being given the chance to make an impact on a program, on a university. I was able to show students you didn't have to be from New York to be a great magazine editor."

Simply being a professor would not be enough for Husni. "The first year I was teaching, I realized I had all these new magazines and didn't know what to do with them, so I decided to create a guidebook on new magazines. My wife suggested I call it 'Samir Husni's Guide to New Magazines' because I wanted it to be about what I knew. So I did."

Meredith was interested in publishing the book, and the first edition came out in May 1986. Two years later came another pivotal moment for Husni.

"I had a student who couldn't pronounce my name..so he started calling me 'Mr. Magazine.' He got me a plaque at the end of the year that read 'Mister Magazine Samir A. Husni.' I was interviewed by the New York Times soon after, and when they took a photo of me at my desk, the plaque was on my desk, and it became my name."

In 2007, while Husni was chair of the journalism department, Ole Miss received a grant to be used to change the department to a school of journalism. Two years later, Husni decided he wanted to step down as chair and create a vehicle for finding ways to "amplify the future of print." Out of this idea came the Magazine Innovation Center.

"In this whole onslaught of digital media, I had to focus 100 percent on what I really, truly cared about," he says. "I try and teach my students that this industry is not about consumers falling in love with the platform, it is about us falling back in love with the audience, the ones I call customers. We are not here to be content providers, we are experience makers."

Husni's collection of first editions now totals 28,000 issues mostly dating back to the 1970s, with some going back to the early part of the 20th century. Husni says the Magazine Innovation Center, housed in Farley Hall with the rest of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, is currently seeking funds to put up its own building. The ground floor would be a museum, to which he would donate his magazine collection. "It's like a history of pop culture from a different point of view," he says.

As for the future, Husni says he has no plans to retire any time soon. "The day you separate me from my magazines is the day I am probably dead," he says. "People are paying me for my hobby. It doesn't get better than that.

"I grew up as a kid in Lebanon who just loved magazines, and now I've become America's leading expert. I really believe in miracles. I tell my students to just follow their hearts and give it their best. It's what I did. I am still smitten with magazines issue after issue. There is something more to holding the magazine in your hands, flipping the pages, feeling the weight of the issues, and knowing you have it from page one to the last page."

And his family understands. "Whenever we go on vacation, whether it's to Disney World or Paris, my children always say, 'Dad, why don't you go to the newsstand first so you can see what's there?' "

Just don't ask Husni to come up with a list of his favorite magazines. "I do not differentiate among my children. If it says Volume One, Number One, I am in love."

And despite his near obsession for them, magazines are not the only things Husni collects. "My sidekick love is neckties," he says. "I have a collection of over 1,200 neckties, all very colorful. I tell my students if they see me wear the same tie twice in the same school year, they automatically pass the course."