Defining a magazine for 2010
If botanists identify new species of plants and entomologists catalogue new species of insects, what do you call people who do the same thing for magazines? Right now, you could call them slightly confused.
Several brands have taken it upon themselves to conduct their editorial business entirely online, or at least partially online, while utilizing the word Magazine within the title. Despite the fact that these publications have no hard copy print edition, these titles have chosen to incorporate a word previously affiliated only with a glossy bound book on 80-pound stalk paper (and maybe a round of ammunition). Rather than going the way of e-books or e-newsletters, these “online magazines” look suspiciously similar to Web sites. But a savvy researcher doesn’t stop with appearances.
In May, Bob Sacks, president of Precision Media Group, attempted to list six magazine signifiers such as, “It’s edited … It’s designed… It’s permanent.” The problem with these properties is that they could also easily describe a Pottery Barn catalogue.
Andrew Losowsky, editor of The Magtastic Blogsplosion, sees only a minor expansion in what is already a broadly used word. “There are ‘magazine shows’ on television, on the radio and now magazines online,” he said in an e-mail interview. One of the traditional distinctions of a magazine Losowsky points out, is the use of chronologically numbered editions and issues.
“A magazine is something which appears in numbered issues; its basic content is static, curated as an individual entity and appears on a particular date. So The Escapist, by that definition, is a magazine; Slate, on the other hand, is not – each article is designed to stand alone, like a blog. That is, I must stress, based on my definition and that of some of my peers. Slate will probably disagree.”
As magazine researchers, we studied the staff structure, layout, content and delivery frequency of many brands without print editions who have the M word in their title. Examples include Slate Magazine, Temple Magazine, as well as magazines that ceased printing a hard copy and went online-only such as PC Magazine and Vibe, which is expected to re-launch a print edition in November.
Print magazines, while varied, tend to have freelance writers, who submit articles to editors, who get approval to run them from managing editors, or publishers. The production directors usually navigate the editing and layout process between other staff members and the graphic designers, if the publication is lucky enough to have all three departments.
Online magazines, also varied in structure, have more streamlined staffs in that the editors might act more like content filters and may upload the articles directly themselves. For example, Salon.com announced its strategic move to release six employees because it is “moving away from a very traditional magazine production model and becoming more of a true Web publication.” Graphic designers get replaced by (or morph into) Web site designers and those who now provide images/video if needed, but the templates are set. Have at it daily.
A traditional Web site layout always provides a departmental listing. Original editorial pieces should make up at least 50 percent of each page – anything less than that and you’ve got a blog. Believe it or not, layout and design plays a large role in how we sort the piles.
Magazine sites invest thought and much effort into creating a graphic for the feature articles by getting creative with the headline font in a way that indicates advanced planning instead of just plug and play.
Finding a stock photo to insert next to the title of the article would be what a feature looks like on a Web site or blog. Slate’s “The Republican Death Machine” by Jacob Weisberg has at least two different fonts in three different colors overlaying on a cartoon image, which makes it unique to this article. This is a signifier of print magazine culture – to invest design resources to accompany a story.
PC Magazine’s layout is closer to the traditional Web site structure, but their staff has remained largely the same since going online-only. The end user is not driving a majority of the content for PCmag.com either. Their content is heavily curated by their editorial team.
Maybe it’s time to revise the way the M word is used, similar to the way “surfing” now rarely refers to actual water. I think in large part the M word is being used in online brands because of the status and affiliations it holds. Producing something called a magazine means planning ahead with thoughtful intention not only about how an article will read, but also how the page as a whole will look. Now, if only we could come up with a name for those of us who dissect magazines.
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