The Crisis at the Front of the Book

In 1993, Sports Illustrated‘s Jack McCallum came off the NBA beat to edit the weekly’s Scorecard section. He and a collaborator, Rich O’Brien, wanted to make the pages more reader-friendly and modern. “But the charge,” he told The Observer, “was still to be the editorial voice of the magazine.” He invented a small recurring feature that soon became indispensable: This Week’s Sign of the Apocalypse, a deadpan, one-sentence nugget from the tackier side of sports. It was a joke, and an entire unsigned editorial, all in the space of a few postage stamps, and an example of front-of-the-book magic that now seems lost. Mr. McCallum and Mr. O’Brien knew they had a hit when readers and other staffers quickly began inundating them with Apocalypse fodder, and the two rarely made it to a Monday close without several worthy candidates.

But then, in 2005, Deadspin came along and quickly established a monopoly on seamy sports news. If Will Leitch’s blog published 60 items in a week, it seemed to the staff at Sports Illustrated that if Apocalypse wanted to be original, it would have to settle for the 61st-most-amusing thing that had happened on turf they so recently owned.

Another Scorecard element, They Said It, a pithy quote from the week in sports, was harder to drum up then and almost impossible now. “As sports coverage proliferated, Christ-by the time you found something interesting, it was not only in five places, it was 5,500 places.” Mr. McCallum still reads Apocalypse, he said, but he often skips They Said It because he figures he has probably already seen the quote elsewhere several times.

Next to Scorecard, Sports Illustrated instituted a section called Players that featured smiling athletes’ workout tips and recipes for shrimp and grits–“a front-of-the-book section filled with lifestyle pieces that could’ve been lifted from a dumpster behind the ESPN offices,” as a withering Slate critic put it. Players was discontinued.

It’s still possible to put out a very good FOB–even if you’re Wired, whose up-to-the-nanosecond readers may be the most hostile bunch imaginable to the idea of a months-long delay between closing a section and its on-sale date. How does the editor of Start, which won the ASME award for best section in 2009, handle it? “I was hoping you’d have some tips for me,” Robert Capps told The Observer. “It’s not easy.”

The trick, Mr. Capps said, is to deliver a comment in each item in the magazine’s house voice. Namely: “a geeky, wise-ass older brother who’s both smart and likes to crack a lot of jokes, but also totally wowed and interested in and excited by the changing technological landscape.” Facts and figures are packed into the marginalia (an old Spy trick).

As the short takes in front have suffered, magazine’s feature wells are thriving. Lovely as The Talk of the Town often is, The New Yorker matters most now because of very long, big-impact pieces by David Grann and Atul Gawand
e. (Mr. Gawande’s article on health care costs was deemed so socially useful by the investor Charlie Munger that he cut the writer a check for $20,000, an action unlikely to result from any Tables for Two item soon. Mr. Gawande donated the money.)

During the recession, when readers were hostile to the kind of $400 shoes often featured in GQ‘s early pages, the men’s title stayed essential with deep reportage by Robert Draper and Sean Flynn. @LongReads has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter, and is the salvation of anyone who sits down at a diner with nothing to read but an iPhone.

“You could say the front is the hors d’oeuvres and the middle is the main, or you could say that the whole thing is a special kind of experience,” Ellen Levine, the editorial director at Hearst, told The Observer by telephone from her office. She pulled out a recent copy of Marie Claire and counted the spreads close to the cover. Other Hearst titles are moving in the same direction.

“There is no longer a front of book or a back of book,” Ms. Levine said. “It is clearly a through-the-book concept. That’s much more European.” The Continental titles have been doing it for 10 or even 15 years, she said. “Now, this has not become an epidemic yet, but I do speak for myself in thinking that this is a very interesting opportunity to consider. I think it’s actually very contemporary.”

By April, though, re-engineered front sections are scheduled to greet readers of both The Times Magazine and Newsweek.

Those moves, by magazine veterans Mr. Lindgren and Tina Brown, could set the template for the sections industrywide. And it could inform advertisers whether they should be looking elsewhere for a place to put their money.

nsummers@observer.com | @nicksumm

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Players currently runs in Sports Illustrated; the section was discontinued.

 

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