At the Folio: Show in October I led a session called "The Art of Magazine Journalism." If our business is indeed an art, the state of it is hard to reckon. Newsstands today are dominated by magazines that would be laughable if publishers weren't laughing all the way to the bank. Nevertheless, following are some observations I've made over the past year of editorial and design tactics that either lift a magazine into state of the art, or yank it out altogether.
Recently I was thumbing through an airline magazine with a cover story, written by the publication's editorial director, about cruising the Caribbean. The story consisted of one page of headline typography; six pages of photos; and approximately 350 words of text in praise of a 160-foot schooner with 20 staterooms, one of which was occupied by the editor as he did research for this story. The schooner is featured on the cover, in five interior photos, and the story concludes with a note on the ship's cruising schedule and Web site, for more information about itineraries. Sometimes I wonder if some forms of custom publishing might qualify as the world's second oldest profession.
The 1,500-word story is now down to a thousand-word spread. One-pagers are frequent, often picture-only with extended caption, or half visual, half text (350 words). And readers love the end stop, that little dingbat that says The End of a story. It's a stop/go mechanism. Readers want to know at a glance how long a story is so that they can plan their time.
Blame it on USA Today. Readers hate a story that is not self-contained. One survey indicates that when a story jumps to the back pages, reader drop-off is 65 percent. If you jump a story twice, you may hear the sound of no readers clapping.
I went through a pile of men's magazines recently and found that story heads average three words while subheads average 23 words. A short head enables the design director to use a few good words (and glorious white space) for maximum emphasis when doing a layout, while a long deck allows the editor to sell the story in detail and tell the reader why this feature is must-read material. Everybody wins, especially the reader.
Other trends to watch: Stories of yesteryear, looking back through the archives of a magazineï¾…Black and white photo layout treatmentsï¾…Showcasing writers, photographers and artists on an expanded contributor's pageï¾…Blog and e-mail departmentsï¾…Expanded contents page for Web site offerings, and online editors to keep the site fresh and ever changing as the emerging generation of readers checks in with a Web-driven level of expectations.
I was enlisted to critique a magazine that was losing market share and ad revenue. I went through a few years' issues and noticed that the Editor's Welcome, which had started out as a full page, dropped down to half a page, and occasionally was missing altogether. I asked the editor, who explained, "Some months I just don't have anything to say." Well, now. Houston, we have uncovered the problem.
If your table of contents is front left consistently, and if all or most of your FOB departments and columns are consigned to left pages, your magazine is probably being perceived as ad-driven, not editorially driven.
The ad/edit ratio;ah yes, what should it be? Unless you are a fashion mag, it's hard to work with anything heavier than 50 percent advertising. Forty-five percent advertising is somewhat more workable, and that is the average for magazines belonging to the MPA, but my personal recommendation is 40 percent advertising, 60 percent edit.
Is there anything more damaging to team morale than the so-called "post mortem" meeting? It is a gathering designed to wound the art director. No one says, "The reporting on this cover story is thin," or "The writing in the cover story is really flat." No, we are gathered here today to inquire: How come this photo isn't larger? Why did we use red here instead of blue? Couldn't the cover image be larger? And on and on.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals For information on his Interviewer's Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.