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Magazines. Amen?

Posted on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 5:20 PM

Is this the end for magazines? A renowned expert on the confluence of text and design presents his answer...

By Jan V. White

No! There are more successful (paper) magazines than ever. Just go over to the magazine racks at your local drugstore, let alone bookstore.

Yet somehow this mass of stuff is drowned out in the frantic discussions about alternative platforms: leveraged brands, portals, video interactive screenshot apps, kindle tweets, or whatnot. Everyone worships "digitized" and genuflects to this jargon. Gotta be cool!


That frenzied, terror-stricken rush to newness is all about competition, speed, money, growth, advantage. Of course, the success of the publishing business is vital. But isn't all that screaming just at the outer edges of the real problem, where the real work is done?

Ignore the shrill cacophony. Our real work uses kinder words. Some of them can even be the boring, good-old-fashioned, non-glamorous concepts like precise thinking, thoughtful analysis, careful writing, functional design, canny editing -- then rewriting to make the damn thing even better, clearer, more valuable still. That value is what your reader-investor needs and will happily pay for! Those are the words and concepts that are worth remembering and teaching to future publishing generations. They are about fine publication-making.

Publishing vs. Publication-Making

Let's distinguish between the two things: (1) the publishing business per se, and (2) fine publication-making.

The publishing business itself is a sales tool. Great! Fine! Of course! Vital! Obviously, its purpose is to be profitable. That is a given. But only as an old sales tool that is in its new guise. However vital, it is just the means, not the end.

Publication-making is a creative cultural boon. It is about doing things that are worth doing for their own sake -- all to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Making flowers bloom.

Please stop making mocking violinist-gestures with that haughty look on your face. "Who cares? Why invest in editorial excellence? They won't read it, anyway." One of these days, you business guys (God bless you) will discover that the poetry of well-crafted communication will return. It will have to, and for a fundamental reason: it is still now, has always been, and will forever be the means of bringing fine content as its reward. Fine content is saleable! Profitable! Sine qua non ("without which nothing").

What's Really New Here?

What is the infatuation with "the new mediums" replacing?

1. Visual flashiness. Flashiness is a question of fashion and superficial competition. Sure, it creates attention. Go look at Times Square. It is fantastic, but the individual bits cancel each other out, and what do you remember? An emotional high and then what?

2. Speed. This affects the delivery of messages. It is amazing, marvelous, staggering. Some things you need right away, and there they are. That's irreplaceable. Other stuff you wish you could have time to think about. There is never enough time to cogitate! Goddageddidone and forgedduboudit. What a pity.

Excellence of content is identical whether it is on slow, boring paper or in flashy, digitized format. The intellectual process we call "thinking" that works so well on paper is absolutely appropriate when it is converted into electronic formats. It is all the same process:

(a) Writing, (b) editing, (c) designing. The purpose of the process is to transmit a message onto its substrate (how is that for techno-terminology?), be it digitized or printed, so that it gets to the recipient. Getting to the recipient is what matters. The means of doing that create the same results because the purposes are identical: getting the message across!

Key Questions to Ask Yourselves

What's effective communication nowadays? The publishers' bread-and-butter. If the publishers sold more bread, they'd be in the bakery business. In publishing they are in publication-making.

What's effective publication-making nowadays? Brand recognition, clarity of message, ease of understanding, simplicity of editing, visual delight, logical presentation, curiosity, fascinating subject matter, and all the other good things we work so hard to achieve.

What's the quick formula to success in editing? Oh dear! I'm an old editor/designer sort. Do I dare put my head in your lion's mouth? Will you publisher-types go and tell my editor-types what this self-styled guru suggests? Sure, why not? Live dangerously! Any discussion of what we do and why we do it is better than ignoring each other and just hoping for the best.

1. Pick only content that fits your product's context.
2. Decide what story is worthy of your space.
3. Define and articulate why it is worthy. How will your target benefit?
4. Make it short: 200 words. If it must be longer, bust it up.
5. Write your display (especially captions) to create curiosity.
6. Design and layout aren't art, but they lubricate the editorial idea.
7. The magic word "you" is irresistible, so use it.
8. Promise a benefit in your headline with enough words to persuade.
9. Spin your message so it is positive.
10. They will listen if they sense a reward.

What's new and different? Only the exaggerated glamor of the machinery we use to transmit our content! That's absurd. Other than that, there's nothing new and different. Is our "dying" profession dying? I submit that it is more alive than ever, because it is as valid and vibrant as ever, because what we do continues to be as useful and important as ever. It is needed. So master your content and then apply it to whatever platform you business-guys say you want. Good writing/editing/designing is good writing/editing/designing, regardless of how it may be mechanically manipulated.

Jan White lectures worldwide on the relationship of editing to design. He tries to persuade word people to think visually and visual people to think verbally. He is the author of Editing by Design (3rd ed.) and a dozen books on publishing techniques. Contact him at janvw2@aol.com.

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