The whys & wherefores

From Ocado to Occupy, a good magazine starts out with a clear idea of its aims and readership. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I’ve been busy researching a book about editorial design, one of the starting points for which is the question ‘What is a magazine?’ Not a new direction of thought, in fact one borrowed from the first chapter of Ruari McLean’s 1969 book, Magazine Design. I also dealt with it in my first CR column. But it’s a vital question, and one even more pertinent today than in the late 1960s.

The magazine industry has since grown enormously, especially during the 1990s and 2000s consumer booms. So much so that for a large part of the industry the most appropriate answer to the ‘What is a magazine?’ question was simply ‘An easy way to make money’. Post-boom this is no longer the case. There are still publishers making money from magazines, but fewer are enjoying the easy wealth of previous eras and there have been closures and reductions as a result.

Thus a subtly different question has come to the fore: ‘Why a magazine?’ This is a favourite of mine. It should be the first question asked of any new project, and not just for the topline decision-making in terms of which combination of print and digital channels to offer. It’s the ‘What do you hope to achieve via the magazine?’ part of the equation that interests me; what is the point of it?

Most magazines can be best described as entertainment. They are discreet worlds the reader can lose themselves in, and in that respect share more with movies than the more incidental experience of television. The entertainment can come in obvious guises – titles dedicated to gossip, sport, fashion, culture, humour – but these are also a key part of other magazines. Only the most hard-nosed of current affairs magazines have no humorous columnists or cartoons to contrast with the news and opinion.

Magazines are also hugely persuasive vehicles, as the continued growth in customer publishing demonstrates. The success of magazines published on behalf of brands like John Lewis is marked, with latest circulation figures showing a combined 9.5% increase across all such titles. This role of persuasion is an old one – it stretches back to the propaganda of the early 20th century. And for all the prominence of social media during the recent Occupy movements, both the London and New York chapters also produced printed publications as an alternative to mainstream coverage of their cause.

The Occupied Times of London was a worthy read that deserved the attention it received from design blogs for its stylised black-and-white grittiness and as an example of the urgency of print. But was it ever really going to reach beyond its immediate audience and preach to the unconverted? It hadn’t responded to the ‘Why?’ question. Was it an internal ‘staff’ magazine or an attempt to propagandise its aims beyond its supporters? In other words, what was its point?

Two magazines published at roughly the same time as The Occupied Times show how it’s possible to attract attention to and build up their respective (if very different) causes.
The first is This Magazine Will Make You Smile, published to promote the Ocado delivery supermarket. You could hardly have something more different from The Occupied Times in every respect, but the ‘Why a magazine?’ question applies equally to both. This Magazine Will Make You Smile is preaching to the converted, but its reader has little interaction with Ocado beyond shopping online and receiving bags of groceries from the delivery driver. The magazine steps into the breach, breathing life into the brand via 36 pages of light but neatly executed editorial. Basically a list of light-hearted but useful tips, it features Ocado-friendly writers (names familiar from The Observer and The Times) sharing brief, intelligent pieces to cheer you up during the dark days of winter while emphasising the efficient service provided by the company. References to Ocado are numerous but subtle, the primary message being feel-good and positive, something the design reflects with a busy but easily assimilated contemporary feel. It casts a warm glow across its sponsor, and has just enough presence to appeal without letting the reader consider it a waste of resource. Job done.

At first glance a similar mood pervades The Good Times, a one-off publication produced by The Church of London and distributed free across London to counter January’s ‘Blue Monday’, apparently the unhappiest day of the year. Completed in a single week as an exercise in crowd-sourced content creation, its title and lead headline, ‘Happiness Outbreak Sweeps London’, imply something as light as Ocado’s effort. In fact, the 28 tabloid pages turn out to be a deeper working guide to what you can do to make a difference to the world. Examples of social enterprises, a reappraisal of the anti-Iraq war protests and a celebration of the Notting Hill Carnival mix with lighter material such as children’s suggestions of what they would do if they ruled the world. It skilfully uses design to attract people to content they might otherwise avoid.

This Magazine Will Make You Smile and The Good Times have each taken on the ‘Why?’ question. Both titles have figured out who their readers are and addressed how best to communicate with them. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s an essential head start.

Jeremy Leslie blogs at magCulture.com

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