What Makes a Magazine a Magazine?

Every title is unique, but structure, variety and personality bind them all.

pile of magazines on a wooden table

Quick — name three passions. Now, name your go-to resources for keeping up with the latest news, trends and opinions on these passions.

Chances are, you’re thinking of your favorite news sites, social feeds, the sites of companies or associations that specialize in these topics — and magazines.

That’s part of the medium’s magic: It can be as mainstream or as niche as you need it to be, and it changes often enough to remain relevant.

The print magazines found in bookstores and on newsstands run the gamut of popular interests. Factor in the titles produced by custom publishers or brands for specialty audiences, and the well of information and inspiration that shapes the way we live and work deepens considerably.

Despite the tired tropes that “print is dead” and that today’s readers lack attention spans, recent research from MPA—The Association of Magazine Media  shows that 9 in 10 American adults  read magazines. The format is persists regardless of the platform it’s experienced through.

“Whether they are consumed in print, on tablets, on a smartphone or on the web, magazine media fulfill readers’ desires for timely information and entertainment that appeal to a broad spectrum of personal interests,” says MPA, adding that magazines also “deliver powerful relationships that influence, inspire and endure.”

To which I say, yes — and yes!

But what makes a magazine a magazine?

Each magazine has a unique mission and vision, target audience and subject matter focus — not to mention its own pool of contributors, publication process and methods for attracting readers.

And yet, certain common attributes distinguish magazines as a whole from other media. When clients ask what makes a magazine, my go-to answers are these.

Magazines have structure

Compare the latest issue of your favorite magazine with a preceding issue. The individual stories will be different, of course, but you’ll see that the bones are the same. In print publishing parlance, you’ll find these parts of a magazine:

  • Cover pages
  • Front-of-book content, which may include columns (including an editorial), letters to the editor, news, quick-hit trend pieces and publisher-focused content
  • The feature well, typically two to five long-form articles that are more extensively reported and more creatively designed
  • Back-of- book content, which may include reader-engagement pieces (such as quizzes or puzzles) and product-focused content (such as reviews)

The reason for this boils down to one simple truism: There’s comfort in continuity — both for readers and for the magazine producers.

Some readers consume a magazine from cover to cover. Others gravitate first to favorite writers or departments and then flip through the rest of the book, stopping to read only what interests them. Either way, all readers come to expect a certain experience each time. If there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s in each issue, they’re less likely to become emotionally or financially invested in the experience. On the other side of the equation are the publishers, editors, writers, designers, photographers, illustrators, advertisers and others who labor to create what ends up in readers’ hands. Having a constant framework from issue to issue allows for maximum creativity within that framework. Reinventing the formula every single time is exhausting, quite frankly, and deeply confusing to your readers serving.

Features are the entrees; columns, departments and spotlights of the magazine are the appetizers, sides and desserts.

Magazines have variety

If every story is roughly the same length and each issue is organized and designed the same way, what you get is a very boring reader experience.

To put it in relatable terms: If features are the entrées, then columns, editorials and spotlights of the magazine are the appetizers, sides and desserts. If you overdo any one of these, you’re going to walk away under- or over-nourished and, most likely, dissatisfied.

A well-rounded reader experience, on the other hand, offers a mix of quick hits and deep dives, informed opinions and straight facts.

Feature articles typically quote more sources and examine topics in greater detail and with more objectivity. Because they have higher word counts, they rely on callout elements such as sidebars and pull quotes to break up the text and draw readers’ eyes. And they eschew a templated format, with each feature having its own look via varied (often dramatic) photo, illustration and font treatments.

Meanwhile, columns tend to be subjective and conform to a templated design — thus, they’re shorter. Departments also tend to be templated, shorter and often more visual to help break up the monotony of dense copy blocks. Think: non-narrative techniques like checklists, charts and infographics.

Magazines have personality

Food & Wine versus Bon AppétitPeople versus Us WeeklyTime versus NewsweekSports Illustrated versus ESPN The Magazine. In each case, you have titles treading the same territory, but they aren’t the same.

This is because the people who produce each of these titles have worked hard to cultivate a voice and tone, an editorial philosophy or a point of view that’s unique to that brand — a personality.

It’s not just what they’re saying, it’s also how they say it. That’s why every magazine has an editorial style guide that goes beyond the grammar and punctuation rules dictated by the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style or other publishing authorities. The standards a magazine staff establishes for the writing and design of the publication ensure consistency across issues and clarify—both for contributors and the audience—what the magazine stands for. Think plain versus pedantic, friendly versus formal, sarcastic versus serious and so on. Without some semblance of personality, a publication feels like a mouthpiece for the company or association that produces it. There’s certainly a place for that type of communication, but it’s rare, if not downright impossible, to find all of that in anything other than magazines.

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