Magazine Epic Fall?
Author: Cynthia Zhu
Special thanks to Mengxi Wei
Design: Cynthia Zhu
Consulting Art Director at Condé Nast
Deputy Art Director at O, The Oprah Magazine
Cynthia: First of all, Thanks for all of you for participating our interview and sharing your valuable inputs. I always have an obsession of reading on paper. Reading magazines was one of our main path to obtain information before the digital media boom. Today we will talk about the current status and the future of magazine/ paper media in New York City so as to lay out a big picture for the people who interested in join in or is already part of it in other regions.
Cynthia: So can you describe your working experience in magazine/publishing industry.
Jeff: I have worked staff and freelance for over a dozen magazines since 1998. In my early years I learned the business from teams at large publishing companies like Condé Nast and The New York Times and later enjoyed experiencing the challenges and satisfactions of putting out a publication with less resources and money and solving things creatively. (Though to be honest, even the large companies are doing that in 2017)
Gillian:I have enjoyed working in the magazine and publishing industry over the past 10 years. I like the pace in magazines, and the process of taking stories from ideation to print. I’ve found that it is a rewarding experience, especially when a concept for the visualization of a story is approved and put into production. The art direction process is challenging and creative, which feels worthwhile. My current work experience consists of the following practices: being assigned a story, meeting with editors and the photo team to discuss the content of the story, brainstorming ideas for how to design and create appropriate visuals for the story, creating a style brief (if necessary), researching for swipe and ideas to pitch and sell the idea to the editorial committee, art directing photo shoots or assigning illustration, creating a layout and designing the page, working with type to communicate the message, working with the digital imaging specialist to achieve color-correction and retouching on images, tightening up designs, prepress, and ragging type.
Cynthia: In general, how are roles distributed in a magazine department?
Jeff: There are two large departments: editorial and marketing. Edit creates the magazine and marketing sells the ads and brings in the money (to oversimplify). Within edit, again, there are two big departments of editorial and art departments. Editorial handles the words and is made up of editors, writers, copy editors and fact checkers. The art department handles the visuals. There are typically design, photo and production departments.
Gillian: Every magazine department is structured a little differently, but I’ve found that generally in the art department, there is a design director who oversees the management of the department, an art director who handles more of the nitty-gritty hands-on work (including actual page design and managing of schedules), a deputy art director or an assistant/associate art director, a senior designer and/or junior designer. Magazines don’t seem to have production people anymore – the position has been mostly phased-out to cut costs. Often there is a creative director who is above the design director – this individual will oversee the larger picture items.
Cynthia: In terms of content and design, what you think will differentiate a magazine from others?
Jeff: Interestingly enough we are still in a time of many independent magazines having a shared visual language of centered sans serif type, white space, and gallery like handling of images. However outside of these 'journals', magazines are no different than brands and have a kit of parts including typefaces, color and graphic elements to make their brand ownable and distinct. Photography and art direction is also a huge factor in creating a distinct voice.
As for content, there are still incredibly focused niche magazines for specific audiences. This is where the indie mags come in, more than commercial magazines. Everything from luxury dog to hipster tennis mags are out there.
Gillian: Content is a huge differentiator – there are many different categories that magazines fall into which dictate the look and feel of it. Within those categories, the audience and demographic determines a lot of the design direction. In the case of Oprah, our demographic is middle-aged women of color who want to find meaning in their lives – so our content is largely driven by that. Our designs are friendly and bright and delightful, but not too frilly. They should feel serious, but not too serious. Magazines feel different largely because of type choices as well as how images are presented. Certain titles tend to shoot photographs that are modern and poppy and push boundaries. Others don’t.
Cynthia: It may be noticed that paper media is strike by digital media, what would you suggest to make paper media thrive?
Jeff: I have started to accept the potential reality of the 'end of print' to some degree that was discussed in the late 1990s as I entered the field. A co-worker recently made a great example that books surviving the Kindle so print isnt going away entirely. However it appears we will be getting our news entirely digital soon, and I could see print newspapers going away entirely. I think magazines are in-between books and newspapers. The business is clearly being disrupted but I think less issues and making them premium in production value could help. We still live in a analog world and have objects in our home (and coffee table). It is here that print books and publications will always have a value I believe.
Gillian: I’m not really sure. I imagine cross-platform editorial content is helpful.
Cynthia: What do you think make the most revenue for a magazine nowadays, and how would you suggest broadening it?
Jeff: While I am not on this side of the business, I still believe print ads bring in a great deal of money for each ad. Unfortunately as readers of the last twenty years can attest, the size of magazines (and quantity of ads) has sadly shrunk considerably.
Gillian: I imagine advertising is the greatest revenue for magazines. As for broadening it, I think it involves new was to benefit each other. New partnerships, more product placement. All things that could potentially damage the actual editorial content.
Cynthia: Last but not least, what are your favorite magazines that you would like to recommend?
The New York Times Magazine
Admittedly, I did work there for a time, but I list it because my years there are just a blip on the incredibly long run of editorial excellence that the magazine has put out for the last 25 plus years. This is unheard of and is alone in this accomplishment in this era, in my opinion.
We know Tyler Brule can put out a great magazine (1990s *wallpaper) but its the 360° branding of monocle as a media company that is most impressive. In an era when publishers are trying to figure out how to move from a magazine to a brand ... he's done this brilliantly from day one with Monocle stores, events, podcasts and radio, merch, etc.
Gillian: I love Gather Journal, Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Afar Magazine, New York Magazine, New York Times Magazine.