Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

What makes a great magazine or blog

Posted by shannonclark on August 23, 2008

I am an avid reader have been since I learned to read as a young child. In my time I have subscribed to many magazines. In high school I also edited the high school literary magazine, an issue which won awards.

Great magazines are much more than merely collections of great writing. The editors create a magazine’s voice through layout, article selection, and the context they choose to provide (or conversely choose not to provide) around the individual stories.

In today’s blog and web obsessed world it is easy to forget the value and impact of the overall form on the readers but it is worth considering it carefully.

I received a gift of a subscription to Gastronomica last year, but have not had a chance to read the issues I have received until recently when I started to read the Fall 2007. I haven’t yet finished that issue but had an immediate reaction after reading a few articles which is much the same as my feelings about another similarly highly respected magazine Granta.

Namely that while both magazines have great individual articles they are lacking something important, specifically a clear editorial voice and context to each article in the issue. In the case of Granta this lack often means that I do not know as I read an article if it is fiction or non-fiction (an no, this is not at all always clear given the types of writing Granta has published in the past). In the case of Gastronomica I found myself wanting some introduction, something to fill the white space around the articles with context, with who the author is, with why these particular stories were published in this particular issue and in this particular order.

So to get back to my subject, what does make a great magazine or blog?

  • Context such that the resulting issue (or overall website in the case of a blog) is greater than any individual piece. Sure this still leaves room for great individual articles and stories, Malcolm Gladwell’s many amazing pieces for the New Yorker for example or Andrew Sullivan’s cover article on Obama for Atlantic. But my point is that a great magazine expands upon the work of individual authors and creates a whole which is greater than the parts – both in each issue and over time.
  • Design. I fail on this account frequently on this blog. Great blogs tend to incorporate images, text and increasingly video to enhance and illustrate both each post as well as the overall experience of reading that blog. Indeed I think many of the major blogs (at least in Technology) have a policy of at least one image for every post, usually more than one, which help to anchor the post and make it more than just words. In the case of magzines design – the fonts, layouts, images and especially the structural choices have a major impact on how the magazine reads. Some magazines, The Economist perhaps most famously, have articles that run into each other, often resulting in articles that continue for many pages, whatever the editors feel the topic requires. In contrast many other magazines restrict stories to one page (or part of a page) in many cases and in most others if the story needs a bit more they relegate the end of the story to the back of the magazine (the famous continued on…).
  • A point of view. Great magazines are not for everyone, they are for a particular audience and they wear a point of view clearly and without shame. This does not mean that a magazine which does reporting should not practice great journalism (and the reporting of facts not opinions that requires) but in the selection of what stories to report upon, how to present them and what to invest in and pursue the magazine, at least the great ones, come at the world and the subjects covered from a particular point of view.

So why do I have issues with both Granta and Gastronomica which both publish man individually amazing and great pieces of writing?

For one both seem content to only let the stories speak for themselves, in both cases I am left without a lot of context about who the writers are, why they are writing from the perspective which they are. Even the New Yorker does this to a bit, with many stories published over the years where the reader is assumed to know who the author is (and why for example the author might talk of the Kennedy’s as cousins or do countless other cases of name dropping).

These are then magazines which all too often are written for a very particular community, one which is perhaps too narrow. But further by not taking the smallest of steps to give context as a reader I lurch from story to story (and not at all clear which are memoir, which are reporting, which are fiction, which are some form of meta-experimental mashup of forms).

The result for me as a reader is I am left willing to close the magazine unfinished and read something else.

So what would be an example of a great magazine I have read recently?

Monocle a relatively new (just a bit over a year old) news, lifestyle and design monthly magazine published out of England which is my favorite new discovery of 2008. Every issue, along with the website, starts with a very cohesive and comprehensive design senseability. Clear typography, heavy use of lots of images, long form reporting with a very personal focus, and a very comprehensively global perspective.

In part Monocle is one of my favorite new discoveries because of this highly global perspective, unlike the majority of US media (of all forms, web included) Monocle is focused on a truly global perspective, with in depth coverage of cities and news stories from around the world. Cities which in many cases I doubt have gotten even the barest of mentions in most US media anywhere.

But I am also reacting positively to the very clear point of view present throughout all parts of Monocle. A point of view that highlights design, which assumes that the readers of the magazine love good design (including some who would buy great examples of design directly from the magazine) and which focused on a fully global perspective. The magazine tends slightly towards a male demographic but does cover both men’s and women’s fashions and design elements. They also include a wide range of mediums – on the web they have films (for subscribers), in print they include custom Manga (in English but layed out in the traditional layout) which include both an ongoing story and advertising.

This strong sense of design is also built into the overal magazine’s experience. Most of the magazine is in black and white, but in a very high resolution and high quality print and paper, but each issue includes some in depth stories presented in high resolution color as a special section of the magazine, in all parts of the magazine a large number of images add richly to the stories while at the same time the editors clearly give writers room to write relatively long and more in depth stories than are frequently found in US media. Stories which go on for multiple pages and which include dozens of photos, vs the few pages and only a couple of photos if that found in most US media. Even the physical form feels more like a book than a typical throwaway magazine, as a result it is a magazine I am likely to hold onto for a while into the future.

Which brings me to a final point, I also very positively appreciate how Monocle combines advertising and content in a very smoothly integrated whole. The advertisers ad to the overal experience of the magazine and clearly are seen as positive partners in the magazine’s success. As a result I am left with a positive perception of these advertisers even as some of them are unlikely to get my business (as they are in many cases EU based firms).

What are your favorite magazines? What do you think makes a great magazine?

One Response to “What makes a great magazine or blog”

  1. A few quick additions – one thing Monocle does well oddly is in how they price the magazine. Each issue has a cover price of $10 here in the US and the magazine comes out 10 times a year (two double issues which may have a higher price, need to check on that). For a total cost of $100-120/year to buy the magazine at bookstores or newsstands (plus tax in states like CA that charge tax on magazines something I’m still unused to as Illinois does not). However a yearly subscription which does include full access to the website & online archives as well as invites to events (which I think are mostly in London) costs £75 or about $138 at today’s conversion rates (according to Google). So it is cheaper (by just a bit) to buy Monocle every month at a local store, even with nearly 10% sales tax. Odd as mostly magazine subscriptions are cheaper (not more costly) than the cover prices. But still a great magazine and I’m sorely tempted to subscribe.

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