What Makes a Magazine a Magazine

When it comes to magazines, every title is unique, but structure, variety and personality bind them all.

Quick — name three passions. Now, name your go-to resources for keeping up with the latest news, trends and opinions on these passions. Chances are, you’re thinking of your favorite news sites, social feeds, the sites of companies or associations that specialize in these topics — and magazines. That’s part of the medium’s magic: It can be as mainstream or as niche as you need it to be, and it changes often enough to remain relevant.

The print magazines found in bookstores and on newsstands run the gamut of popular interests. Factor in the titles produced by custom publishers or brands for specialty audiences, and the well of information and inspiration that shapes the way people live and work deepens considerably.

Despite the loose generality that “print is dead,” adults are still reading magazines by the droves. The News/Media Alliance shows that 222.2 million people read magazines (print and digital) as of 2021.

Although global print revenue is expected to drop approximately 13% from 2023 to 2027, the magazine format is persisting regardless of the platform.  Global digital magazine and newspaper revenues are expected to grow 11.37% from 2023’s $38.60 billion to $42.99 billion by 2027, according to WordsRated, a research company.

Whether they are consumed in print, on tablets, on a smartphone or on the web, magazine media fulfill readers’ desires for timely information and entertainment that appeal to a broad spectrum of personal interests. Magazine media deliver powerful relationships that influence, inspire and endure.
The Association of Magazine Media, now the News/Media Alliance

But what makes a magazine a magazine?

Each magazine has a unique mission and vision, target audience and subject matter focus — not to mention its own pool of contributors, production process and methods for attracting readers.

And yet, certain common attributes, like structure and design, distinguish magazines as a whole from other media. When clients ask what makes a magazine, our go-to answers are these.

Magazines have structure

Compare the latest issue of your favorite magazine with a preceding issue. The individual stories will be different, of course, but you’ll see that the bones are the same. In print publishing parlance, you’ll find these parts of a magazine:

  • Cover pages.
  • Front-of-book content, which may include columns (including an editorial), letters to the editor, news, quick-hit trend pieces and publisher-focused content.
  • The feature “well,” typically two to five long-form articles that are more extensively reported and more creatively designed.
  • Back-of- book content, which may include reader-engagement pieces (such as quizzes or puzzles) and product-focused content (such as reviews).

The reason for this boils down to one simple truism: There’s comfort in continuity — both for readers and for the magazine producers.

Some readers consume a magazine from cover to cover. Others gravitate first to favorite writers or departments and then flip through the rest of the book, stopping to read only what interests them. Either way, all readers come to expect a certain experience each time. If there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s in each issue, they’re less likely to become emotionally or financially invested in the experience.

On the other side of the equation are the publishers, editors, writers, designers, photographers, illustrators, advertisers and others who labor to create what ends up in readers’ hands. Having a constant framework from issue to issue allows for maximum creativity within that framework. Reinventing the formula for each issue is time consuming, inefficient, and deeply confusing to readers.

Magazines have variety

If every story is roughly the same length and each issue is organized and designed the same way, what you get is a very boring reader experience.

To put it in relatable terms: If features are the entrées, then columns, editorials and spotlights of the magazine are the appetizers, sides and desserts. If you overdo any one of these, you’re going to walk away under- or over-nourished and, most likely, dissatisfied.

A well-rounded reader experience, on the other hand, offers a mix of quick hits and deep dives, informed opinions and straight facts.

Feature articles typically quote more sources and examine topics in greater detail and with more objectivity. Because they have higher word counts, they rely on callout elements such as sidebars and pull quotes to break up the text and draw readers’ eyes. And they eschew a templated format, with each feature having its own look via varied (often dramatic) photo, illustration and font treatments.

Meanwhile, columns tend to be subjective and conform to a templated design — thus, they’re shorter. Departments also tend to be templated, shorter and often more visual to help break up the monotony of dense copy blocks. Think: non-narrative techniques like checklists, charts and infographics.

Magazines have personality

Food & Wine versus Bon Appétit. People versus Us Weekly. Time versus Newsweek. In each case, you have titles treading the same territory, but they aren’t the same.

This is because the people who produce each of these titles have worked hard to cultivate a voice and tone, an editorial philosophy or a point of view that’s unique to that brand — a personality.

It’s not just what they’re saying, it’s also how they say it. That’s why every magazine has an editorial style guide that goes beyond the grammar and punctuation rules dictated by the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style or other publishing authorities. The standards a magazine staff establishes for the writing and design of the publication ensure consistency across issues and clarify — both for contributors and the audience — what the magazine stands for. Think plain versus pedantic, friendly versus formal, sarcastic versus serious and so on. Without some semblance of personality, a publication feels like a mouthpiece for the company or association that produces it. There’s certainly a place for that type of communication, but it’s rare, if not almost impossible, to find all of that in anything other than magazines.

Creating an online magazine or a print magazine can put your brand in front of the audiences you are trying to reach. If you’re researching how to start a magazine, reach out! From content strategy to magazine production to every article in between, we’ll help you exceed your content marketing goals and win new customers.