If one were to think of a magazine as a fine dining experience, the front-of-book section is a lot like the waiter’s description of the establishment’s nightly specials—more detailed and colorful than a cursory read of the menu, and meant to serve up something experimental and intriguing, playing to the chef’s core strengths while perhaps broadening the patrons’ horizons ever so slightly.
The Atlantic‘s front-of-book “Dispatches” section returned to the magazine a decade ago following a hiatus, and its current iteration, which debuted in 2013, broadly consists of a lead essay, a profile of an intriguing public figure, and a handful of smaller features generally focused on politics, foreign policy, business or tech.
Five years on, senior editor Kate Julian, who runs the section, and magazine editor Scott Stossel felt it was time to take stock of what they were doing, and how Dispatches could better set the table for The Atlantic‘s readers.
“We felt in general that we wanted to find some new departments for these smaller items that were essentially ‘Atlantic-y’ in that they were idea driven, but we also wanted them to be fun,” Julian tells Folio:. “We wanted things that would take us into territory that we don’t necessarily get into in the magazine as often as we’d like to.”
To that end, a handful of new regular features have entered the book starting with the magazine’s March issue (on newsstands next Wednesday), including a new, expanded Q&A-style interview, running two-to-three pages long and featuring original photography—something previously rare in the Dispatches section. The first will feature staff writer Julia Ioffe interviewing Armando Iannucci, creator of the TV series “Veep,” about his new film project, “The Death of Stalin.”
Another monthly feature, “Animal Kingdom,” will explore new trends or findings related to animal behavior and cognition.
“There’s a lot of really interesting research going on right now about animal cognition and behavior and emotion,” Julian continues. “It’s a really hot topic and one that we think our readers are quite into.”
A third feature, the first iteration of which Stossel says is already taking off online, is called “Criminal Tendencies,” exploring new trends in crime and what they suggest about society in general.
“We were pleased and surprised to see that the inaugural ‘Criminal Tendencies’ item, by Rene Chun, about how criminals can fool self-checkout automated stations, was our most popular traffic driver on the site for much of late last week and the weekend,” says Stossel. “We weren’t expecting that, but it suggests we’re giving readers what they want.”
Because Dispatches features the greatest variety of subject matter of any of the magazine’s sections, it affords Julian and Stossel a lot of freedom to experiment, but also some possibility of misfiring.
Any responsible change made to a magazine however, is preceded by a reader survey, the results of which were really more gratifying than anything else. Expecting results that would suggest more substantial changes were warranted, Stossel says, he was pleasantly surprised to learn that readers generally liked what the magazine was doing. They just wanted more of it.
“It actually in some ways relieved us of the burden of having to wholesale rethink what we were doing,” he adds. “As an entry point into the magazine, Your brain will be tickled, you’ll get cocktail party fodder, you’ll be made to think. All of these changes in big ways and small are aimed at doing this.”
“One guiding principle for the section over the years is that it should be The Atlantic in distillate,” adds Julian.
With a mandate from readers to dig deeper, Julian says the team examined, systematically, which parts of The Atlantic identity weren’t showing up in the magazine. What they found was that a number of items seemed to fall between the Dispatches section and the Culture File, the section it precedes, which is generally meant to be devoted to criticism.
“We found that there’s a whole swath of things ranging from entertainment to culture to parenting to how we live now more generally, to sports, that just weren’t finding their way into the front of the book,” Julian continues. “Part of our hope is that by discontinuing the ‘Works in Progress’ feature [a recurring front-of-book spread], that we could have a bit more space to do pieces from month to month that fall into those categories.”
One thing readers said they enjoyed most about Dispatches was the lead essay, which is usually focused on politics or foreign policy. Part of the strategy in mapping out the new features, Julian says, meant emulating what works well about the lead essay and applying it to those other topics.
Any magazine editor who makes a significant change to his or her book does so with some trepidation and fear about shaking things up too much, and at 160 years-old and boasting its highest level of print readership ever, The Atlantic is no exception.
“There’s always fear involved,” Stossel says. “It’s almost a cliché truism of magazines that any time you do any kind of redesign, readers hate it, because they get used to what they like. We’re always trying to strike a balance between pushing the envelope as far as we can, while at the same time not alienating loyal readers.”
In general, readers expressed an interest in longer, more text-heavy articles. Dispatches is already on the long side for a front-of-book section. Some articles push 2,000 words—not exactly bite-sized content. But Julian sees this as an opportunity to fill a void in carefully conceived, well-written content that falls somewhere in between short- and long-form.
“We were happily surprised by that,” she adds. “We had anticipated people might want more infographics, or other visually-driven features. What we found was that they liked what we were doing and wanted more of it.”
The brainstorming process brought in a number of stakeholders, in both small and large groups and including both the print and online teams, in consultation with editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg and, not insignificantly, the magazine’s design team.
Apart from the addition of original photography, design changes both in the Dispatch section and across the magazine include incorporating new fonts—something particularly helpful in Dispatches as it integrates longer and more text-heavy articles. Creative director David Somerville’s team selected the new typefaces as a way to accommodate that while also opening up more white space, or “moments of visual rest,” as Julian calls them, quoting Somerville. The new fonts meant to be sharp and readable, but also compact and space-efficient.
Another design consideration includes having the same illustrators work on each of the regular features, to add a degree of continuity from issue to issue.
“We have very productive creative tension,” says Stossel. “The editors always want more words. The designers always want more space for images or white space. Out of that productive tension, we hope, comes the ideal mix of beauty and concision.”
Asked if similar creative tension exists between trying to serve loyal readers while also attracting new ones, Stossel invokes a 1951 quote from baseball great Joe DiMaggio: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best.”
“We have great love for our most loyal and longest standing readers, and we want to always keep them happy,” he adds. “We also always want to be expanding our readership or our potential readership, and that means always having our best foot forward everywhere.”
Frankly, The Atlantic has. Apart from its all-time-high circulation of 572,000, newsstand demand for its July/August 2016 issue was so strong that the magazine was forced to print a second run—by anyone’s guess, a first in The Atlantic‘s considerable history. Less than six months later, the phenomenon repeated itself.
Stossel concedes that it’s hard to predict reading habits or advertiser patterns, but that the print magazine remains core to The Atlantic’s brand identity and its editorial mission.
“What we know we have to do is continue to just put forward a bundle of content that is appealing and that works together as a cohesive unit, but that also will get disaggregated and live a separate life on social media and on the internet. And we love that,” he says. “I think there’s a recognition that to allow the print product to deteriorate would be a dangerous road to go down. The better the magazine is, the better the whole enterprise is.”