Daybook · On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing

Figuring Out Why Magazines Suck

When I was in junior high, one of my favorite places to spend my allowance was at the newsstand across the street from my apartment.  I'd buy a Twix, and load up on many magazines as I could afford. My favorite was Sassy, but I'd also grab Seventeen and YM, and then, creeping up the age demo, Glamour, Elle and Vogue.  I'd take them into my room, and perched on my red satin bed cover surrounded by a flurry of subscription cards, I'd sink into a fugue of longing for that handbag, this shade of eyeshadow, that hair style, that boyfriend. Not surprising, I suppose, that I'd go on to write for magazines as an adult.

I don't mean to kick an industry when it's down, but I have to confess, my love affair with the glossies has  gone sour. I've let all my subscriptions lapse. I peruse the mag racks at the airport, at the bookstore, and while I pull down a stack of them –cover art is still good –I rarely find anything that I feel compelled to buy.

What motivated my mag-a-love as a teenager was learning the answers to the burning questions of my life at that time: how to be pretty? how to be cool? how to find a boyfriend? My concerns today are different:  I now want a magazine to tell me something surprising, something I don't know. I want a magazine to tell me an amazing story.

But most magazines don't do that. And since I've spent the past decade and change working in magazines and watching the sausage being made,  I think I understand why: Magazines are risk averse.

From reading a headline, I can tell you exactly how a story is going to go, because –and I'm not sure readers know this –most magazine stories are written before they're reported. An editor decides what she (or he) wants, and then dispatches the writer to go and get it. (And those are the nice editors, sadistic editors will force the writer to try to guess at what story they've written inside their heads from their desks, and then watch them bang their brains out trying to get it. One editor actually told me she wanted me to "download" what her top editor wanted. WTF.) The thing is, most editors sit behind a desk all day long. They don't know a whole lot about what's happening in the actual real world. Some editors understand this, and attempt to shore up their weakness, but in tough times, they get cowed by their higher-ups.  Who are defensive about their lack of knowledge and therefore cling to their ideas about reality with more intensity. (Included in their conception of reality is a rigid idea of who their reader is and what he or she is interested in.) It's Plato's cave. The editors are chained to the wall with their backs to the fire, and watching the shadows dance on the wall. Pity them.

There are a few magazines that don't take this approach, but in that case they are either assigning to writers whose voice and style is so well known, that they might as well have the story written out ahead of time; or,  pay very little if anything, making writing for them a dicey proposition for a professional writer. Actually, it ends up a lot like the New Hampshire legislature, which doesn't pay its representatives: many of the volunteers who serve are either independently wealthy, retired, or insane.

In addition to predictability in magazines, there's also the problem of readability.  As more readers get their information from the web, print magazines have concluded that readers want things to be more like the web: shorter, more packaged, more graphics.  Well, no, if I want the internet I'll turn on the damned computer.  (This reminds me of another bad idea in magazines borrowed from another medium, the extended Q&A.  A long interview works on television or the radio, but not on the printed page. A short Q&A is okay, but only to showcase the snarky cleverness of the interviewer and the interviewee.)

I notice that editors of some big whoop online
magazines are starting to act more like their print brethren. This is not smart. This is sad. Please stop it. My analysis of what your problem is may not be correct, but I think we all can agree, as magazines shutter every day: What you are doing is not working.

Updated: there are a lot of interesting ideas out there on how to fix magazines/newspapers etc. Here's Seth Godin's.  And here's the Jeff Jarvis take.

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