Culture / History of the Media / In English

The Reading Magazine Experience

The experience of reading magazines is something personal to each reader. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a magazine is a periodical publication containing articles and illustrations, typically covering a particular subject or area of interest. Unlike newspaper, the news was not the main topic: the readers’ likes and dislikes are directly targeted. For instance, I can read a women’s magazine because I am a woman, a cinema magazine because I love cinema and a magazine that targets the Arab community because I belong to this particular community. The reader has to identify himself or herself through the tastes, the styles and the emotions he is looking for. How is that I can be a member of these very different audiences? Why would I read those magazines or in other words, how do magazines work for people to read them? How is it going to evolve?

“I AM PART OF A COMMUNITY” 

When I say I read women’s magazines, Arab magazines and cinema magazines, I obviously imply that I belong to these communities: the communities of women, of Arab people and of cinema lovers. The first two communities, I did not choose, I just happen to be part of each. Yet, for cinema for instance, or even fashion, it all depends on my tastes, likes and dislikes. Reading these magazines not only gives me tips about what movie to see or what clothes are the new trend, it also makes me feel that I am part of a community. This is a mass communication medium that does not deal with the relationships between media and audience through news, but with the lives, the morals, the feelings and the imagination of the readers. Everyone is potentially the reader of several magazines. There is not one magazine for one person.

As a magazine reader, I do not feel like I am reading a random article from some random journalist: I feel like the writer is talking to me. The tone is more personal; the vocabulary looks like mine. As Meredith L. McGill has noted, the personality of the writer can be perceived through the article. The magazines seem more “human” than newspapers: I can identify myself with what is written, how it is written and so on. There is closeness between the reader and what is written. In the newspapers, the writer-journalist has to erase himself in the name of news: the news is more important than the way you say it. In contrast, in the magazines, the journalist has to say it in his or her own way, how he or she thinks the readers would see the news; the journalist analyzes more, but with a light tone. This is probably more interesting to read than newspaper.[1]

Magazines may be the best media to help understand complex questions. However, they are the last to talk about the “news” so when they do, the “news” is not that new anymore. Still, this is not what magazines aim for. As the sociologist Jean-Marie Charon has written, the magazine is a mirror in which the reader does not see his complete reflection: just one or a few characteristics (the fact you’re a woman, or you love cinema…).[2] As Theodore Peterson pointed out, in 1941, Frederick Lewis Allen highlighted the fact that people, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, preferred subjects that dealt directly with their lives: businesses, politics, national and international news were not what people wanted to read or hear about. They were interested in questions that concerned them directly, not only as a community but also as individuals. Those were mostly questions about personal conduct, sex, marriage, family, personal beliefs and so on and so forth.[3]

The feeling of belonging to a community is enhanced even more with the magazines’ appearance on social network such as Twitter or Facebook: people could share one article with their friends or followers, even with people they do not know but with whom they share the same opinion. Magazines interpret issues and events rather than informing about them: they do not compete with newspapers, they complete them. They put the news in a national perspective and thus, they play an important role in creating a sense of national community: as Theodore Peterson wrote, “the reader was aware, however dimly, that other people across the nation read the same magazines as he did and they provided a cultural bond between them.”

MAGAZINE: A BEAUTIFUL OBJECT MORE THAN ANYTHING?

What I described above is applicable when the magazines already have their readerships. I now will discuss to what extent magazines attract a readership in order to give a feeling of belonging to a community. Magazines have to work to distinguish themselves from other media – and also from one another – and to catch the readers’ attention. According to Jean-Marie Charon, “Magazines distinguish themselves from the technical and professional press by the fact they address a wide audience, each one of us.” They have a slower rhythm than the other media: magazines are usually published once per month so they allow themselves to step back: time allows quality and thus the choice to publish or not texts and photos, to leave more room for creativity, sensibility and trends but above all, to privilege the audience: what the readers like and dislike, their passions, their characteristics, their questions and thoughts. It is thus easier for the advertisers to target a certain audience: clothes and perfumes in the feminine press, cars and usually watches in magazines for men. The readership is segmented according to different characteristics: sex, age, cultural level, lifestyle and so on. While the generalist media aimed to gather one audience, magazines answer, on the contrary, to precise expectations specific to some individuals. However, the written content of a magazine is not the most important or its main characteristic. Today, one does not need to buy magazines to read them: for instance, I do not feel this need because I already follow some of them on Twitter (Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Cosmopolitan…) and I even downloaded the applications of those who even developed one (ELLE, French tabloids CLOSER and Public). Yet, from time to time, I buy a magazine when I pass by a bookstore. Why? Because I am attracted by the beauty of a cover. I am not really interested by the headlines: I just liked the colors of the cover or the clothes or the makeup worn by the model. Then, to be sure that I want to spend my money on it (about 1 or 2€ for any women’s magazines, 4,95€ for VOGUE magazine), I flip through the pages quickly and if i am attracted by what I see, I buy it. Thus, this is the magazine as a physical object that appeals to me.
Magazines distinguish themselves from other periodicals by the important place given to visuals (images, photographs, graphics, illustrations, etc.). Sometimes, the pictures take even more prominence than the actual writing. The advance in technologies, especially in printing, the quality of papers and of photography, helped to develop it. Jean-Marie Charon talks about a combination of two “stories”: the visual story and the written story. The visual story is not a valorization of the writing but is as important as the writing: the images are indispensable from the articles. They sometimes are enough to describe what the journalist want to say: in fashion magazines, the journalist barely writes three or four lines to explain what the event was or what it is about and then, the pictures speak for themselves.

The same could apply to travel articles, among others. Pictures make the magazines easier to read, more pleasant and more enjoyable, almost like TV. In this case, it explains why the paper experience is even more important: students in fashion schools cut images from fashion magazines to inspire themselves and to use them, students from journalism schools use magazines to inspire themselves to create one. Charon defined magazines as a beautiful object that has to seduce the reader.[4] From the late 19th century on, the notion of magazine implied a huge place given to pictures. Pictures are not a simple illustration but a special story. For instance, here are pages from articles of the fashion, culture and fine arts magazine THE DELINEATOR, a magazine which was published from 1873 to 1937.[5]

As one can see, already the images were a big part of a women’s article and as early as the beginning of the 20th century, an article could be constituted of only pictures. There is a parallel with advertising, as the latter also has to appeal audiences just by its looks (see picture in the next page). Photographers, graphic artists, graphic designers, model makers and artistic directors who came from backgrounds such as fine arts or decorative arts, artistic or advertising areas (not journalistic ones) also work for magazines.[6] It is more interesting to read than newspapers because, firstly it is beautiful, but it also challenges the reader: the journalist proposes an opinion about news, a movie or a fashion style. This is something one could read with friends and discuss about. Travel, sports, fashion are subjects that interest deeply because they are entertaining but which are impossible to be developed as much in newspapers. That is probably why some magazines that deal only with those topics are successful. To encourage people to travel or to dress in a certain way or to follow certain sports events, you have to use multiple illustrations. Therefore, they do not really deal about the news. Most of the articles have no other ambitions than please and attract the readers. As early as the 19th century, one would read magazines for pleasure, distraction and provocation. It gave advices to women; they felt more intelligent reading it.[7]

THE FUTURE OF MAGAZINES

Ever since the 21st century and the development of Internet, the experience of reading magazines on paper has seemed threatened. With blogs, anyone could open one and writes his own article. Usually, the tone and the way of writing are similar to magazines. And as Meredith L. McGill emphasizes, when you read your “news” through blogs, there is no more pile of magazines that accumulates; magazines that you have already read and that you would not read anymore. Blogs, she says, “focus on breaking news, a topic of concern to a particular community”: they are like magazines but unlike them, on blogs, one could publish the article right away. As I have already noted, Jean-Michel Charon argues that the default magazines have compared to other media, is the fact that it could not deal with the news when it is new.[8]

Yet, one may notice that in order to counteract this complaint about “pile up”, some fashion magazines, such as Cosmopolitan or ELLE, have shifted to smaller formats to make it easier to have one in one’s bag. At the time magazines boomed, Edgar Allan Poe argued that “the whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward. […] We now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused – in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.”[9] Even then that new media required promoting a different kind of writing from what already exists: it has to propose something new. Blogs only propose a shift of material, not of what is written.

 

            To conclude, I would say that I – but anyone actually – can be the reader of very different magazines because this is precisely what defines one magazine: it deals with one characteristic of yours (your gender, your community, your likes and dislikes…) and develops it so that you can never know enough about it. By reading a magazine, I can feel part of a community, see that people I do not even know think the same thing as me or feel the same way I feel. With social networks, I can even share it with my friends and/or followers and create an interaction. Yet what makes magazines so special is really their look especially with women’s magazines: I enjoy more looking through the magazine than reading it. I enjoy seeing very beautiful pictures of models or actresses and getting inspired by their fashion styles. To attract me to buy it, a magazine has to be beautiful and seduce me.

[1] L. McGill, Meredith, “Lurking in the Blogosphere of the 1840s”, http://www.common-place.org/vol-07/no-02/reading/

[2] Charon, Jean-Marie, La Presse magazine (nouvelle édition), ed. Collection REPERES, 2008. Pages 77-78

[3] Peterson, Theodore, Magazines in the Twentieth Century, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1956, p. 361 http://library.brown.edu/cds/mjp/pdf/mojp000046.pdf

[4] Charon, La Presse magazine, 4-5-6

[5] THE DELINEATOR Magazine Profile http://www.magazineart.org/magazines/d/delineator.html

[6] Charon, La Presse magazine,.83-84-85-86.

[7] Radway, Janice A., literary and cultural studies scholar, Women Read the Romance, Feminist Studies, Vol.9, No. 1 (Spring, 1983)

[8] Charon, La Presse magazine, pages 77-78

[9]Peterson, Theodore, Magazines in the Twentieth Century http://library.brown.edu/cds/mjp/pdf/mojp000046.pdf

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