Saturday, September 5, 2009

What is a magazine?

Summary: An exploration of the essence of magazines reveals that their defining characteristics have more to do with how they represent and enable communities rather than any physical or publishing characteristic.

Why define magazines?

As I work toward launching a new magazine, I am contemplating a question that seems to have an obvious answer to many people, but is definitely contentious, and for which there is no real consensus. Although finding a concrete answer might also seem like a philosophical pursuit of no real importance, I think it is pretty important to be aware of what I am about to do. I should probably already know the answer to this as editor-in-chief of one magazine that I built, but the changing publishing landscape prompts me to re-examine it. Knowing what makes a magazine also gives us a chance to emphasize what is characteristic and gives us hints as where we could focus our efforts.

There are really two questions to disentangle in this discussion: “what have magazines traditionally been?” and “what is a magazine in essence?” It is the latter I am most interested in.

Of course, a far more interesting question than "What is a magazine?" is to ask how to best connect writers and readers. However, I wanted to think about this particular much smaller question as a starting point. I also find it an interesting question to ask because there are these things called "magazines" out there. Does that label actually mean anything? And if it does, what does it mean? I am working on the assumption that it does have a meaning, but you can decide whether or not the label "magazine" is meaningful based on my analysis here. If the concept of a magazine no longer has any use, that is also a very helpful thing to know. [Note: This paragraph added in response to very useful comments from Michael Nielsen. He is entirely right that the bigger question is more interesting, but I never actually got the reason for choosing this smaller question into the essay.]


I asked a bunch of people who have not necessarily thought hard about this but who are bright and interested in the media or publishing. Many of them wanted more context for answering the question, usually in terms of whether I was asking how is a magazine different to a newspaper, or some other form. But I’m primarily interested in what creates “magazineness”. If Plato had an ideal of a magazine, what would characterize that ideal magazine?

I also dug around on the Web looking for various definitions of magazines, including those from magazine and publishing associations. I didn’t find any particularly convincing, to be honest, in the sense that I could easily think of counterexamples which I think ought to be called magazines. However, that digging and discussion was useful for developing the following incomplete list of possible properties that you could use to define magazineness.

The possible properties of magazineness

Here are some possible properties that could be used to define magazineness: periodic; has self-contained pieces; specialist readership; not immediate; has a 3-part structure of front-of-book, feature well, back-of-book; issues are fixed and permanent; various design elements; date-stamped; a collection of pieces; depth of coverage; involves paper; editorial voice; and/or production quality.

At first glance, it is pretty clear that none of the properties listed above would by themselves suffice to separate magazines from other types of publications or would be general enough to include what seems to be the universe of magazines. However, it is worth exploring a few of these in more detail to understand why they are not sufficient. It seems that likely that a characterization of magazineness would include multiple properties.

Periodic: This definitely seems reasonable to describe magazines for most of the last century. However, is periodicity too broad in that it seems to include newspapers, television programs, comics, and many other media? At the same time, is it too narrow when it comes to digital publications that publish on an ongoing basis (e.g. or Slate)? These online publications do tend to be date-stamped and stories are assigned to a particular issue, even if the frequency is daily, but the idea that information comes out as it is generated confuses a traditional idea of periodic publication.

The idea of fixedness seems to suffer from the same problems. However, I’m having trouble thinking of a publication that regularly rewrites and replaces past stories. But perhaps that would actually be of great value to a magazine: “Living stories” that are updated as circumstances change. Of course, many magazines revisit a topic—e.g. top ten holiday destinations under $100/day—and the old versions are essentially obsolete.

Specialist readership: This seems to be a reasonably strong property of magazines. At least it seems that way until you start to think about publications like TIME, Newsweek, or US News & World Report. What specialist readership exists for those groups? But perhaps those publications aren’t really magazines at all. Are they weekly newspapers? The Economist calls itself a newspaper and states on its Web site:
“First, why does it call itself a newspaper? Even when The Economist incorporated the Bankers' Gazette and Railway Monitor from 1845 to 1932, it also described itself as ‘a political, literary and general newspaper’.

“It still does so because, in addition to offering analysis and opinion, it tries in each issue to cover the main events—business and political—of the week.”
Perhaps there really is room for a class of publications called “news magazines”, which have the properties of newspapers but come out less frequently than daily.

So leaving aside news magazines, does specialist readership get us somewhere? First let’s think about a few other examples to see if it applies because some examples seem a little more difficult at first.

What is the specialist readership of The New Yorker? I think it is probably a group of people who self-identify as politically left-leaning, well-educated, thought leaders. Vanity Fair is probably in a similar class in that readers probably see themselves as style aficionados and leaders, whether that style is for fashion or ideas.

So apart from specialist readers that identify via a hobby or interest, there are also groups of readers who self-identify with a particular image. That is probably not the most obvious interpretation of specialist readership, but I think it fits, and there is something bubbling away below that concept. To me it is the idea that readers of the publication identify with other readers of the publication, even though they haven’t met them. They have some image of what other readers of the publication are like, and they want to be part of that group in some way. This is really getting at a sense of community, and I’ll come back to it later.

If we really wanted to understand the readers in these terms, we could do worse than consulting with the advertising sales department of a magazine. Although that is a dirty concept to people on the editorial side of the house, a good ad sales group knows just as well as anybody else who reads the magazine and how they are defined. I’m not condoning the idea that editorial takes its lead from advertising but rather that experts in advertising are very good at analyzing audiences and have something to tell us. In return, advertising salespeople who are trying to do a better job ought to listen hard to the editorial side of the house to understand who the publication is trying to reach.

Immediacy: The idea of taking time to reflect on matters is part of some definitions of a magazine, as opposed to the supposed immediacy of news reporting. I’m not especially convinced by this argument. Online magazines are able to respond to events fairly rapidly in way that would not be classified as news, and with material that wouldn’t fit in a newspaper. It is often true that magazines run long-lead stories, but so do newspapers, especially when it comes to investigative or enterprise reporting.

Perhaps there is a story waiting in a magazine’s stock just looking for a reason to run it. Something might happen that spurs a magazine’s editors to select that story over others and the result is that the magazine does respond quickly to events.

Structure: I think most people would have some intuitive sense of magazines having a traditional structure, usually referred to front-of-book, feature well, and back-of-book. It’s a pretty versatile structure and it tends to work well for readers. But there are plenty of magazines out there that don’t have this structure. Some examples: One Story, The Thing Quarterly, 60 Minutes, This American Life (on radio). Are they all magazines? I’m prepared to accept that they are although 60 Minutes might be better called a news magazine. Overall, I don’t think structure is a key part of magazineness.

Design elements: Talk about how designed a publication is gets us nowhere. All publications are designed, some very poorly, with little thought, or purely derivatively from the defaults of a production process. Among the people I spoke with, design elements were some of the most common details called out as characteristic of magazines, however. Things like high production values, soft covers, thin paper, lots of images, advertising, and other properties were mentioned. But for every one of these examples, it is fairly easy to think of a counter-example. So although particular design elements might be common properties of magazines, they don’t really qualify as part of magazineness.

I think use of paper probably falls into this category as well. There are plenty of publications I would consider magazines but that don’t use paper. It’s just very common and what people are used to.

Collected pieces: This seems like a pretty strong criterion for magazineness but I’m not sure I see an argument as to why it is essential. There are a few counter-examples I can think of. One Story, which I mentioned before, has precisely one story in each issue. The Australian science radio show Ockham’s Razor has precisely one voice talking on one topic in each episode, apart from the producer’s bookending brief comments, and yet it feels like a magazine to me. I suspect that the reason collecting as a characteristic arises is due to another property I will suggest as part of magazineness: selectivity. It’s harder to see selectivity without having enough examples to observe it, but I think that it plays a more fundamental role than collecting. I’ll return to that topic.

Depth of coverage: Some argue that magazines are characteristic in that they have greater depth of coverage than newspapers or other media. I’ll just ask whether that five-part Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times really has less depth than WIRED magazine’s, Wired/Tired/Retired section.

Editorial voice: The concept of a magazine’s voice is quite subtle to define, I think, but many people agree a voice can be characteristic of a magazine. Various media display some kind of voice, but it’s usually more noticeable in a magazine than in most multi-person projects. For a medium that is much more strongly dependent on voice, personal blogs come up as a prime example.

Editorial voice can manifest itself in various ways. One is in terms of points-of-view on topics, especially when it comes to commentary. Some newspapers appear to have a strong point-of-view, although that is generally through the opinion sections. Most newspapers, in the United States at least, strive for a neutral take on news. Whether they succeed is another matter, but they do declare that is their goal. As such, the way they might attempt to carve out a niche is not via voice.

Voice also comes through in selection of stories, and this is a point where I think we get closer to another aspect of magazineness. The New York Times famously declares “All the news that’s fit to print” on its cover. No magazines I can think of attempt to be comprehensive in that way. Even within a niche field, magazines don’t seem to be in the business of publishing a comprehensive collection of stories. Stories are selected from among those of interest to readers but typically reflecting the, sometimes idiosyncratic, choices of an editor or group of editors.

Toward a definition of magazines

Having taken a brief excursion through the possible properties of magazines, we can see a couple that seem to touch on the essence of magazineness and many red herrings. The key properties seem to have to do with a community of readers and editorial voice. So let me take a stab at a definition:
A magazine is a selective representation of a community that offers focus to the community via an editorial voice.
In aiming for a brief definition, there might be some ambiguity, so let me try to clarify. The word “selective” is getting at the idea that a magazine need not be comprehensive in representing its community. If it is trying to be comprehensive, then it is probably a lot closer to being in the news business or might be trying to straddle the two worlds. Of course, at the current time, most of the publications sitting in the news magazine niche seem to be struggling except, perhaps, for The Economist.

By calling a magazine a representation of a community, we include the ideas of trying to reach some defined audience but I think it is more than just a population segment. It is a group of people who could potentially identify with each other as part of some community.

The idea of offering focus is important, I believe, because the publication enables members of the community to make some sense of the issues facing the community thereby allowing the readership to become closer as a community, with a common framework for thinking about themselves. This typically happens via an editorial voice but that does not mean the voice of an editor necessarily. Some publications successfully sustain a joint editorship model that doesn’t have the personality of an individual driving the voice.

Corollaries of the definition

If we accept this definition, what else does it tell us about a magazine? The first of these is about community. If a magazine does form a representation of a community, then it ought to be able to provide enough of a focus to support face-to-face gatherings of its readers. There are plenty of examples of that happening in practice. Perhaps the most successful in recent years has been Make magazine, which runs the MakerFaire once a year. Attendance has been increasing in the five or so years it has been running, and other groups are establishing spinoff Faires beside the official ones in the San Francisco Bay Area. The New Yorker has a festival each year, and runs cruises.

The definition also suggests that communities and magazines live symbiotically. As a community grows stronger, a magazine can feed on that strength. Similarly, a strong magazine can provide focus to help grow a community. On the flip side, as a community grows weaker, magazines would tend to grow weaker as well. I don’t have any good data on this but am interested to hear of examples. For instance, is the ultra-exclusive Black Ink magazine for American Express black "Centurion" card holders still in existence given the global economic crisis? Or has that very-high-end community remained intact?

This definition also suggests that the fortune of a magazine that has a significant change in leadership is susceptible to large swings. If the replacement leadership is able to adopt an editorial voice consistent with the publication and community, all should be well, but a bad choice could lead to major problems. Similarly, a magazine facing circulation/reader involvement issues might be able to improve its position with leadership that is better able to tap into the sense of community that the magazine represents.


The definition I’ve proposed here is quite different to anything I’ve seen espoused for magazines. I don’t know that it is necessarily in conflict with some existing definitions but it tackles the question from a different direction. I do feel that understanding why magazines are what they are is important to creating and running successful magazines and so the most important part of this discussion is not the answer but that the question is being analyzed. I look forward to hearing dissents, improvements, elaborations, and comments as they will only help further the discussion and, with luck, improve all of our understanding of this world of magazines.