You can indeed teach an old magazine new tricks. Here’s a list of examples to prove it.
"If there were anything new in this business, we would have done it six months ago," a cynical old editor once told me. Still, I see new things in old magazines that you may want to consider in the New Year ahead.
1. Rethinking the TOC.
Traditionally, the lead story on the table of contents is the cover story. Not so at Texas Monthly or Fortune Small Business. Both magazines have been employing a redirect to an interior "cover" story on the TOC. Here’s how it works:
The cover story for the November 2007 issue of TM is "Being Jenna Bush," with a photo of the president’s daughter front and center.
When you go to the TOC, however, the Jenna story is summarized in a quick blurb with no visual. Instead, we see a photo of Samir Patel and an oversized text box for "The Glorie of Defeet," a story about this young man’s maturation as he lost the national spelling bee five years in a row. Samir’s photo covers two-thirds of the page.
Fortune Small Business does likewise. The cover story for the July/August 2007 issue is "The FSB 100: Lessons From the Fastest-Growing Small Public Companies," with a photo of John Norris, CEO of Fuel Tech, the company ranked number 12 in the 100. On the TOC, however, the cover story is blurbed without a visual. The bottom half of the page is dominated by a visual, an oversized page number and a story called "Face-Off: Two companies that make inflatable figures used in movie crowd scenes head to court." The visual, which covers about 40 percent of the page, is an eerie-looking humanoid figure, all dressed up and ready for court.
This packaging approach enables a magazine to go big off the cover, and then redirect the reader to a smaller story that is not even blurbed on the cover. For the magazine, it means less repetition of what has already been said on the cover; and for the reader it’s like finding a little prize inside the package.
2. Rethinking the letters department.
With the shift from mail to e-mail, and the proliferation of blogs and other forms of commentary, the old-style letters department is suddenly up for review. Last summer, New York dropped letters and launched a department called Comments. It reads like a catch-all in-basket, with tightly and brightly edited comments from reader mail, internal notes from columnists, excerpts from bloggers, and observations gleaned from other publications.
"Not all our commentators are impartial, if opinionated, observers," reported the magazine recently. "Sometimes they’re the subjects of the stories" who write to clarify a point. The give and take with reader mail is often quite lively. A reader from Brooklyn wrote that he found a movie review confusing: "For instance, what is a ‘woo-woo conceit?’ And what is a ‘schnorrer?’" The Comments reply: "Get thee to Google, man! You’ll discover that woo-woo means ‘concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism’ and schnorrer comes from a Yiddish term for ‘beggar’ or ‘free-loader.’ Yeesh! (An expression of exasperation.)"
3. Rethinking the folio line.
Are page numbers necessary? Condé Nast recently distributed a stand-alone supplement called Movies Rock with several publications, including The New Yorker, Wired, Vanity Fair. The editorial was identical in all versions, but the ads and ad pages varied from book to book, and so did the page count for each version. What to do? No page numbers appeared on the cover. No page numbers were used on the TOC. No pages were numbered.
4. Rethinking the interviewer.
Time was redesigned last spring, a changeover that included much editorial repackaging. For its popular "10 Questions" department, the magazine turned the interviewing over to readers. Readers go online and submit questions to be asked in interviews with notable names in arts, sports, media and politics. "Each week, you ask and they answer," says the magazine. "Also new: a free iTunes podcast of each interview."
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, his Web site is johnbrady.info, or you can e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.