Not everyone enjoys what I say here about magazines, especially their magazines. Having been an editor and creative director at books large and small, national and regional, consumer and trade, I share their pain: producing a magazine is a stomach-churning job. It causes suffering. It produces night terrors. At least it should, if done right.
One publisher, after begging me several times to weigh in on his indie consumer book, went ballistic (repeatedly) when he felt that my commentary essentially peed all over his life’s work. Sorry, sir, but that happens—the criticism, not the peeing. (And in the end, I must say, he apologized in a gentlemanly way for his hot-headed challenge.)
Still, editors and publishers, or their paid reps, continue to ask if I’d look at their magazines. (And then there was the publisher who, after reading what a low opinion I had of his recently acquired magazine, asked if I might consult on a re-do. That book demanded a lot of re-doing. I took a pass.)
Anyway, today I want to share a few cursory thoughts about three magazines that were sent to me in return for some sort of feedback in The Modern Magazinist. Well, OK. The books: Outside, Magic, and Hausfrau. These are about as different from one another as can be. They share one attribute, however: Each is in some way a passion project.
(Teaser: If you hang in until the end of this column, you’ll be rewarded with my final thought on David Granger’s Esquire. Such a deal.)
If I were to pick several magazines as finalists in a value-for-money competition, Outside would be among them. By design, it is packed to the margins with content. Good, solid, educational content.
These days, many magazines so adore white space that text often defers to it. I understand why. White space generally amplifies the impact and beauty of whatever it abuts. It can also be mismanaged or abused. Outside appreciates white space (although, unfortunately, its paper stock is far from white enough), but it also appreciates that for $5.99 per issue (newsstand), readers should expect plenty of terrific reading material. And Outside delivers.
Issue after issue, the top team (Alex Heard is the editorial director, Christopher Keyes is the editor) crams the book with features, tips, guidance, and advice that, it seems to me, are nicely targeted to its outdoorsy audience.
Admittedly, the pages are sometimes too crowded with text (and art), but I’ll ignore the congestion. Readers who pay for Outside know that, for their investment, there is a month’s worth of useful reading here. Just be sure to keep a bookmark nearby because this magazine is not intended to be consumed in a single sitting.
Unlike so many consumer books, Outside does not go for snark or laughs or listicles. It’s an earnest, intelligently crafted magazine that is finding a way to survive in a Net-centric world.
The fact that it remains an independent title (having had several high-profile owners in years past) makes its accomplishments all the more noteworthy. It cannot spread its editorial budgets across a family of magazines, hoping to share content among titles. Outside is hanging out there alone—and it’s doing so from an an office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a million miles from the magazine publishing capital.
Going up against well-financed rivals (among them: Men’s Journal from Wenner Media and The Red Bulletin from Europe’s Red Bull Media House), you’ve got to conclude that Outside is an intrepid, smart book that has battled the odds, eluded the sink holes, and come out the better for it.
It’s hard to know what to say about Magic, a magazine intended for professional and amateur magicians. Talk about niche.
The magazine has been around for a while, and magicians whom I know say it’s a respected go-to among the sleight-of-hand set. Until Stan Allen, Magic’s publisher, sent me a few copies, I’d never seen the magazine.
I regret to report that the book is a mess—like a magic act that doesn’t totally suck, but will never earn a standing O. There is little coherence, editorial magic, or imagination in this monthly. It appears to be modeled on various third-rate trade-book templates from the Eighties.
Nowadays, magazines need to reach for a loftier standard. What was serviceable in 1986 won’t stand in 2016. Magic requires a better understanding of modern typography, navigation, photography—pretty much everything.
And still, if I were a magician, I doubt I’d care about any of this. I’d probably love Magic. Where else would I get to read about the great magicians who’ve passed, the up-and-comers, the old tricks that once wowed, the new acts that the pros are buzzing about, the gear, the conferences, the green-room banter? It’s all here, in this blenderized, boringly presented magazine. Were I a magician, I’d scarf up every page of Magic. But I’m not a magician.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want Magic to disappear. It would be great, though, if an investment were made in its future. It’s not too hard to conceive of a thoroughly reworked book finding eager readers beyond its current core audience.
I’m just now getting ready to begin writing an essay, for another publication, about Americans’ reluctance to consume long-form journalism. Actually, long-form anything. We demand that our info and entertainment be delivered in convenient little capsules. The refrain: keep it short and simple. Complexity is the enemy. Images and video are our friends.
Which brings me to Hausfrau, essentially a 21st Century marriage of pulpy comic book and a graphic novel, with a shot of late-night TV news tossed in, if only to muddy the category.
Hausfrau’s editor, Stephen Kosloff, mailed a few issues to me last fall. I looked at them then, and again more recently. I remain confused by the magazine’s mandate, but that may be more my failure than Hausfrau’s.
The slender book is centered around large photos and accompanying dialogue. Characters are chatting about topics of the day, some major, some pedestrian. Hmmm. Is this a hipster thing? What’s the point? Should I care?
Well, Kosloff acknowledged in a note to me that Hausfrau is still an infant. “My goal is for it to grow in terms of scope and breadth,” he said.
Also, for now, it’s advertising-supported. So, for the cost of an issue, which is zero, you can’t go far wrong.
I’m in favor of anyone who launches a print magazine, even one that confounds me and defies easy categorization. Trying to sell a high-concept, low-brow bimonthly hybrid to an urban audience is an audacious move. This one seems to be a moonshot. Let’s see how it flies.
One Last Bow to Granger
Maybe I’ve written too much in The Modern Magazinist about David Granger, the much-admired editor of Esquire who was let go earlier this year following a long and glittery tenure. But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to genuflect before The Man one more time.
The May issue of Esquire was Granger’s last. What kind of epically cool goodbye would he leave us with?
While I know folks who think Granger’s magazine had grown too self-referential in recent years—too brazenly inward-facing about process—I thought that conceit was in fact its special sauce. We readers were frequently in on the fun and the fumbles inherent in making a great monthly magazine.
In Granger’s sayonara, we find The Man Himself featured in several locations, including a fantastic picture on the final page—David and coverboy George Clooney riding off to who-knows-where, together.
The best bit, though—the real capper in a mag famous for its bits—is May’s two-page table of contents, embellished by a Q&A with the outgoing poobah. The interview is conducted by Associate Editor Nate Hopper. Brilliantly done. It concludes in banter that is signature Granger.
Nate: “What do you wish you would have been asked during your time here but weren’t?”
David: “How did you get to be sooo good-looking?”
Nate: “I can see why nobody asked.”
Seeya around, Granger. And thanks for the memories.