Being a magazine lover, I’ve had a fair amount of opportunity to ponder this one, and have come up with the following key idea: the article should tell you information about the subject that you cannot find out yourself. It’s a simple principle, but a true one, I think. Part of the draw of Time, Newsweek, or even Sports Illustrated is that one learns new things in reading the articles of these publications. The magazine that simply repackages biographical information or, as is more common, tells the reader what’s so great about the subject, is falling short of the magazine’s task. I suppose that the “bravo instinct,” as one could call it, relates to magazine sales; one features a famous person in whatever area and then proceeds to tell people why they’re so great. But I think that it’s the opposite tendency in magazines that makes their reporting sharp. I love learning about the different sides of folks. If I want a puff piece, I can log onto a fansite or read People or watch “Oprah” or some such nonsense.
While we’re at it, a second component of a good magazine article: words. Does that strike you as a strange quality? It shouldn’t. Seems like today the conventional magazine wisdom says that it’s optimal to splash pictures across most pages and leave intelligent print to a minimum. I recall observing this with the Christian music magazine, CCM. I subscribed to the periodical because it gave me info about artists I couldn’t find on a webpage. Soon, however, I was dismayed (and no longer a subscriber) because the magazine adopted a picture-heavy format. The change was strange because a) the strength of Christian music is not in the beauty of its subjects but in the music itself, and b) I could read the whole mag in about an hour. That stunk. Conventional wisdom must always be questioned, and magazines ought always to strive for freshness and to stick what got them where they are: words.