"I know it when I see it," is perhaps the only universally agreeable way of defining a magazine.

The dictionary definition is quite adequate.

a publication that is issued periodically, usually bound in a paper cover, and typically contains essays, stories, poems, etc., by many writers, and often photographs and drawings, frequently specializing in a particular subject or area, as hobbies, news, or sports.1

But various books on the magazine publishing industry have more stringent requirements for a publication to carry the name. James Kobak in his book, How to Start a Magazine, includes being printed on paper, published at least quarterly, being larger than a pamphlet, and distinguishable from a magalog, directory, puzzle book or comic book.2

The U.S. Department of Commerce, in its Census of Manufacturers, distinguishes magazines from other publications based on their niche readership. To the government, magazines are classified "as periodicals rather than newspapers if their news and editorial presentations do not appear to be directed to the public at large."3

The work often used in academic settings when studying the magazine industry has a very broad definition that includes everything from one-off programs to in-house organs.4

The word "Magazine" comes from the Arabic Makhazhin, meaning a place where goods, supplies, or munitions are stored. Magazines can be defined, then, as a figurative "storehouse of information." The first use of the word in a periodical title was probably by the British publishers of the London Gentleman's Magazine in 1731, and their use of the term was almost certainly meant in this way.

The problem with defining magazines is that just about everything about revenue, publication and circulation that is true of one magazine can be false about another.

  •  Magazines can have paid circulation , or not.
  • They can have advertising, or not.
  • They can be published for profit, or not.
  • They can be circulated by mail, or not.
  • They can be available on newsstands, or not.
  • They can be published by corporations, individuals, institutions, non-profits, or just about any other entity.

The one certain thing you can say about magazines is, you'll know one when you see it.

1. magazine. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/magazine (accessed: March 02, 2009).
2. James B. Kobak, How to Start a Magazine (New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc., 1934), 17
3. Census of Manufacturers, 1992.
4. Charles P. Daly, Patrick Henry, Ellen Ryder, The Magazine Publishing Industry (Boston: Allyn and Bacon),4