Nonlinear: Magazines

  • by February 23, 2006
One of my favorite magazines is Vanity Fair. Here's how I read it: I immediately turn to the last page, home of the "Proust Questionnaire," a one-page Q&A with a personality who responds to serious and silly questions with candor and, more often than not, humor. Then I go to the table of contents, which is so long it jumps to another page, and I read it all.

Then I go to the "Contributors" page. Most readers ignore this, but we journalists read it from top to bottom. Then I read my favorite department in the magazine, "The Very Expensive Correspondence of Edwin John Coaster, Contributing Editor," which is quite possibly the funniest department of any American magazine being published today. Then I read one of the feature stories.

The point is, I read Vanity Fair in a totally nonlinear fashion, and I'm not alone. The editorial architecture of most magazines encourages readers to start flipping through pages until something catches their interest. It could be anywhere in the magazine -- front, middle, back -- it doesn't matter, because magazines are purposely and consciously constructed as a collection of different segments, each of which is capable of standing alone.

In this sense, magazines already have a leg up on other print media in competing with the nonlinear world of online communications. They're already nonlinear, even though they're not online. That's not to say the trend of readers turning to the Internet for information hasn't had an impact on magazines. But unlike newspapers, many of which are using Web sites to address the issue, the magazine industry is changing the way it makes magazines to attract readers with short attention spans and a need for instant gratification.

"There's no doubt that there's been pushback from online into print," says Abe Peck, a magazine expert and professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "There's a lot more chunking going on in magazines than ever before." Peck defines "chunking" as stories that aren't really stories, but short items. "When you look at US Weekly, its like streaming media," he says. "It's extended photo captions and a very high story count."

Peck says the growing popularity of online communications, combined with harried readers with short attention spans, has led to a different kind of storytelling that strays completely from traditional narrative techniques. "For example," he says, "if you have a number of health tips, why hide them inside exposition? Just do a nice array and let the tips speak for themselves."

Magazine designer Milton Glaser, one of the true icons of the business, agrees.

"People today don't want the long, uninterrupted kind of reading experience that needs focus and commitment," Glaser observes. "A lack of commitment is characteristic of our time. The trend is to shorten and diminish the complexity of things. Now magazines must deal with an audience that will bail out unless it is constantly entertained. You have to surprise the audience more now than in the past. People want novelty in the way they receive information."

Still, most magazines tend to stay within traditional architectural parameters in their overall design, such as front-of-book, feature well, and back-of-book, according to Fortune magazine design director Robert Newman. But many are experimenting with the presentation of material within that structure.

"Real Simple is a good example," Newman notes. "They're very smart in how they arrange information within the architecture of the book. They're aware that people might graze through the magazine and not read it in the traditional way. The point is that people use media in more ways than ever before, and magazines have to respond to that."

Magazines can counter nonlinear reading habits with better branding. "The New Yorker is a good example," Newman says. "When you talk about how magazines should respond to the Internet, The New Yorker seems like a disaster. It hasn't responded at all. Yet it's more successful than ever. A lot of that has to do with branding. They hone in on their audience, they know their audience, and every inch of that magazine is branded."

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