What is a magazine? Award-winning editor Chris Maillard says it’s near-impossible to get a consensus, but that hasn’t stopped him picking out five of his favourite definitions.
A magazine is a Wunderkammer. A magazine is a skeleton. A magazine is a trip. A magazine is behind the sofa. A magazine is Tonto.
Before you assume that the peyote’s just kicked in, let me explain. I’ve been producing magazines since just after the last Triceratops keeled over. I’ve done hundreds of the buggers. Most print, but nowadays many partly digital, a fair few all-digital and some that you probably wouldn’t recognise as a magazine.
I’ve worked with some brilliant people (including the excellent Alan Rutter, who made a lovely cup of tea when he was my work experience monkey) and a fair few clowns.
It’s always been difficult to establish what a magazine actually is, and near-impossible to get a consensus on that. So I’ve just picked five of my own favourite definitions. They’re talking points rather than cast-iron recipes.
A magazine is a Wunderkammer
In case you’re not up to speed on renaissance German, it’s also known as a Cabinet of Curiosities; a room or display case with interesting, unusual and occasionally eccentric objects, usually collected by one person and displayed as both a conversation piece and an expression of its owner’s wide-ranging and eclectic interests, tastes and travels. They would be full of wondrous things, from native artefacts to stuffed animals (some expertly faked), preserved plants to mineral marvels. The visitor is treated to a fascinating, mind-expanding, unique set of wonders. Isn’t that what a magazine should do?
A magazine is a skeleton
In its essence, a magazine can just be a structure from which you hang various items of interest. Hence the ‘magazine format’ TV show (anyone else old enough to remember Tomorrow’s World, early Top Gear, vintage Good Food, even, lord preserve us, Nationwide?). Radio 4 is often a magazine in itself, with mini-magazines inside it. Woman’s Hour or Woman’s Own? Like a Christmas tree, you start with a basic structure then dangle attractive and shiny things off it to catch the reader’s attention and excite their interest.
A magazine is a trip
It should take you on a journey to somewhere else, show you the sights, give you a relaxing break or an exhilarating adventure and leave you feeling invigorated, refreshed and ready to re-enter your normal reality. It’s a trip to somewhere where you feel at home, but it has enough strangeness to be intriguing and different. And you experience things in a magazine you’d never dream of doing at home. Want to play in that rock band, drive that sports car, walk that red carpet wearing that dress and those shoes? Sure – just pick up that magazine. It’s your ticket to a place where you can.
A magazine is behind the sofa
Or under the stairs. Or in a treehouse. Or anywhere that’s a space of your own, shut out from distractions and annoyances, enclosed and secure. Any regular reader comes to appreciate their magazine as a refuge where they know the subject matter, understand the tone, value the opinions and appreciate the values. It’s their place and they can escape to it whenever they like. Is an online forum actually a magazine? Using that definition, probably.
A magazine is Tonto
The (somewhat non-PC) native guide who knows all the tricks, has a deep knowledge of the area and can sometimes steer you out of trouble. A trusted companion and a faithful friend, your magazine should be there to explain and navigate, full of sage advice and inarguable wisdom. Though the dodgy accent and tribal face paint is strictly optional. Unless you’re editing OK’s Made in Essex special, of course.
That’s five. There are more. But one thing a magazine should never be is boring, so I’ll stop there.
Chris Maillard is an independent content consultant with a long and often ‘surprisingly successful’ magazine career that includes launching BBC Top Gear magazine, editing Maxim, founding and editing Restaurant magazine. He has tackled on- and offline content projects for clients from BMW to Tesco on behalf of agencies like John Brown, Redwood, TMW and the Telegraph Group. Chris has won several awards including PPA Magazine of the Year, Editor of the Year and Launch of the Year. He is also astonishingly modest.