Hold the Rice
In the spirit of our continuing courtship, I was inspired to purchase an edition of Maxim magazine. The attraction was not, be assured, the multiple photographs of Lucy Liu in her undies. No, my intended, I checked it out to see how it executed its marriage of words and visuals.
I arrived at Maxim because its editor, Keith Blanchard, had raised a fuss in a recent speech to journalism students. In that speech, Blanchard characterized his readers and the strategic efforts needed to reach them.
"Maxim readers know how to jump-start a car," said Blanchard, "how to count cards in a casino, how to pick up a girl at a funeral, how to build a miniature flame thrower with a cigarette lighter, a can of Binaca, and two rubber bands."
According to Blanchard, Maxim is "sex, sports, gadgets, fashion, fitness. But it's also cars, jokes, movie and book reviews, gripping stories and intimate interviews, sexy young starlets without much of a clothing budget."
This content, not much different from that of a traditional Playboy, is meant to serve millions of readers who Blanchard describes as "young affluent men, which means they're busier today than they will ever be in their lives; they have shorter attention spans than any previous generation, they are chronically overstimulated and easily bored."
Blanchard turned his speech into a pep talk to aspiring journalists: "Now we can sit in the corner and bemoan this sad state of affairs," he said, "as they do in the New York press, or we can get off our ass and adapt."
Adaptation requires these strategies, he argues: "Eye-catching graphics, short form text, entry points, gripping pull quotes and funny captions."
That's when it hit me, Monica. I had an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I had heard these strategies before. With eyes wide shut I conjured the person who had spoken them to me. And guess what, Monica. It turned out to be… yes, Monica, it turned out to be YOU.
Don't you remember, Monica? You told me that our readers were busy and bored, overstimulated to the point of distraction. That writers didn't understand this. That we had little hope of reaching readers with long investigative stories or serial narratives. We had to hit them quick, we had to hit them hard, we had to hit them with powerful visual images.
Remember how, when I protested, you rolled your eyes at me, Monica -- yes, you rolled them in that fetching way of yours?
"Eye-catching graphics, short form text, entry points, gripping pull quotes and funny captions." Monica Moses, have you been talking to Keith Blanchard. Is that your lipstick on his collar? And is Maxim, as Blanchard argues, the salvation of journalism from its serious self?
Monica, are these the kind of cover stories the design revolution has in store for us:
• "Unleash Her Inner Nympho"
• "Girls of the NFL"
• A Quiz: "Are You a Girl?"
• "Biker Gangs Shoot It Out"
(Actually I kind of liked the Biker story.) OK, I'll admit it, I probably spent more time with Maxim than I do with most other magazines. But I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure I feel very good about it.
Please, Monica, help me make sense of all this. You are the one who has inspired me to think more visually, to think about the reader's needs. Does that mean more stories about "unleashing her inner nympho." If words and visuals are married, will I be consigned to penning naughty captions and lurid headlines? Save me, Ms. Moses. Lead me to the promised land. Take it to the Maxim.
Your Word Boy,
So, you were looking at Maxim, and you thought of me. I'm flattered.
Was it "Girls of the NFL" or Latin singing sensation Paulina Rubio that brought me to mind as you flipped through one of the most popular men's magazines of our day?
I'm not surprised to hear you found yourself spending more time than you expected with Maxim, which is short on treatises on obscure topics and long on photos and little snippets carefully crafted to grab readers and keep them reading.
You're human, Roy, and you're part of a culture that has become much more selective about how it absorbs information. You can't help but be sucked in by story forms that are designed to suck you in and reward you immediately.
Those editors at Maxim have built their magazine around you, their target reader -- not around themselves, not around the Pulitzer Prize competition, not around some sniffy, Puritanical insistence that reading must be laborious to be worthwhile.
And while the content is not something that appeals to me, the form is worth considering. We have to separate the two in judging the magazine.
Some people call the Maxim form of journalism "dumbing down." I call it being smart and being considerate. I call it being democratic, because it isn't bent on excluding the riff-raff while keeping the elites informed.
I'd love to see your average city council story boiled down to a few snippets. I'd love it if newspaper journalists were as determined to connect with readers as Maxim's editors apparently are. I'd love it if somebody could tell me about the latest with Homeland Security in a couple of smart paragraphs. I'd love to be really well-informed; I just wish it were easier and more pleasurable.
Newspapers have been losing readers for 30 years, Roy. Maxim has a huge and growing readership. Maybe it has things to teach us.
As Editor Keith Blanchard said recently:
We have built a highly successful magazine by the astonishing methodology of figuring out what readers want and then giving it to them, an enterprise which in journalism is called pandering, and which in every other industry is called customer service.
If we journalists aren't read, we don't matter, Roy, no matter how many prizes we win or how high-minded we feel. Blanchard and I agree on this. If the information we uncover does not end up in readers' heads -- because its form is forbidding or its relevance to readers' lives is unclear -- we aren't doing our jobs. Journalism should be about readers, first and foremost.
Which is not to say I see Maxim as an unabashed ideal. Frankly, I wouldn't want to go out with Keith Blanchard. It's not that I mind if a guy wants to "unleash my inner nympho." But I'd prefer that it not be a lurid plot shared with 11 million other conquesting males. There is a sophomoric, unregenerate current running through Maxim that turns me off, Roy.
I'm not surprised at that, and neither are you, I'm sure. But I am surprised that you -- a brainy dude, a quoter of Shakespeare, a "senior scholar" and all that -- are guilty of a big, fat logical fallacy.
Here is what you say:
"OK, I'll admit it, I probably spent more time with Maxim than I do with most other magazines. But I'm not sure why, and I'm not sure I feel very good about it."
I think you felt queasy about Maxim not because the form is easy but because the content is cheap. In playing gotcha with me, you set up a straw man and pummeled him into submission. The real threat -- readers who prefer more digestible journalism -- remains.
Daily newspapers need to tell readers what is going on in their communities, and some of that content is not as sexy as, say, a Lucy Liu photo layout. So if our content is not immediately sexy, we have a special obligation to make the form attractive. Unless, that is, we're not really concerned that people read.
Maxim is a throwback in content, no question. But the magazine is progressive in form, in the accessibility of its content. And I hope more worthy magazines follow suit.