On a Tuesday night some weeks ago, at a jam-packed book party at Sidecar, the handsome upstairs space next to P.J. Clarke’s on East 55th Street, Hugo Lindgren was leaning on the bar next to his deputy. The new editor of The New York Times Magazine had been on the job less than a month, and his coming reinvigoration of the once-great Sunday supplement was shaping up as one of the most exciting projects in New York journalism.
When a new editor takes over a magazine, overhauling the front of the book is almost always at the top of the to-do list–and sure enough, one of Mr. Lindgren’s first official moves had been to hire Greg Veis, the talented young online editor of The New Republic, to do just that.
With this in mind, The Observer bellied up to Mr. Lindgren to talk redesign. A lot of front sections seemed to lack vim these days, we said. Was there any title in particular from which Mr. Lindgren would take inspiration?
A great front of the book? Are you kidding? “If you find one,” Mr. Lindgren said, “will you let me know?”
If you ask around the magazine world–at Condé Nast, at Hearst, at Time Inc.–you’ll quickly find a consensus that something is wrong with the front of the book, once the calling card of great editors.
The front section usually is where publications speak in their own voice, on the broadest range of subjects with the most specific comments. And some of them are still pretty great. (Just ask any star who reads Us and realizes they’re “Just Like Us.”)
But many front-of-the-book sections are in deep trouble, a charticle-size version of the angst infecting the glossy world in general. When readers are bombarded online with short items and attitude all day, do they really want that when they relax with a magazine in bed at home?
The future of the front of the nation’s biggest magazine titles is of interest well beyond their mastheads. These sections, after all, were created in part for advertisers, who wanted something light and breezy up front. Most magazines still cluster ads in the first third of their pages; weakness in the front of the book could exacerbate the industry’s financial problems.
Some titles are ditching the FOB as we know it altogether. The Week keeps racking up readers and revenue in part by having no distinguishable front–the whole magazine is a news-roundup-and-commentary digest. Further upmarket, Bloomberg BusinessWeek (where Mr. Lindgren was executive editor before landing the Times Magazine job) was the last big, newsy title to be overhauled. The renovation, which met with surprisingly universal praise for a title not particularly beloved by media insiders, eschewed a traditional front section. Instead there are five and sometimes six sections on broad topics like global economics, policy, markets and finance, which together can take up two-thirds of the magazine’s pages. It sounds dreary. But the reaction that nearly every first-time reader has, BusinessWeek staffers say, is surprise at how chock-full and info-packed and useful the book feels.
At New York, still the standard-bearer of the weekly magazine, the front of the book is perhaps the one thing editor Adam Moss hasn’t totally figured out. Mr. Moss redesigned the weekly’s Intelligencer section when he arrived and has continued to tinker with it ever since. In June 2007, readers thumbed past the table of contents to find the letters page replaced by one called Comments–”primarily because, well, so many of the comments about the magazine no longer come in the form of letters,” an accompanying note read. “Instead, they come in emails, in blog posts, in Web links, and, in one glorious recent instance, through an on-air shout-out on The Colbert Report.” (Old-fashioned letters, The Times noted earlier this month, now tend to be written only by the incarcerated.)
More recently, New York has itched to shake up its Intelligencer operation once again. Mr. Veis, a hot ticket, went to The Times Magazine only after turning down an offer from Mr. Moss to work on Intelligencer and other parts of the magazine, a position that eventually went to Rolling Stone‘s James Burnett.
Part of the problem is that taken individually, the things that have traditionally gone in front-of-the-book sections seem hopelessly outmoded. News roundups: terrible except in The Week. Short items with a dose of attitude: Your RSS reader is choking with these. Letters to the editor: Has any magazine component been better ridiculed by anyone than by Edith Zimmerman’s “Letters to the Editors of Women’s Magazines” on The Awl?
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.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Players currently runs in Sports Illustrated; the section was discontinued.