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How to Read a Magazine

  1. Introduction
  2. Framing investigative concerns
  3. Checklist of a magazine’s anatomy (what to look for)
  4. Method (how to proceed)
  5. Hazards and frustrations

1. Introduction

Let’s begin with an apology: despite the promise implied by our title, we can’t tell you “how to read a magazine” (sorry), since we don’t know of any single prescription for that. The difficulty lies, in large part, with the medium itself. As storehouses for multi-authored texts and images, magazines are radically open forms, both conceptually and temporally: conceptually, magazines loosely assemble a jumble of materials from various origins that never add up to a whole; temporally, magazines are always incomplete, balanced (rather myopically) upon the passing moment while ever bleeding into the future of the next issue in line. If novels and other books presume (though without ever demanding) that readers start at the beginning and move toward the end, magazines can be entered (and exited) at any point, giving readers incredible freedom to chart their own course of reading them. But that’s something you already know from long experience: when you pick up a magazine, you do as you like, no instructions required.

Yet precisely because magazines are so open, and so various in format, and so disruptive of our conventions for reading more formally closed texts, some advice about reading them is helpful, especially for students and teachers who are now looking at magazines as serious scholarly objects. And that’s what we hope to offer you here: a series of suggestions for reading magazines more perceptively, and for getting more out of the time you put into working with them. (A more accurate title for this piece, then, might be "what to look for when reading a magazine" or "twenty things to do with a magazine," though we still think "how to read a magazine" sounds better.)

A recent text that does a commendable job of providing this kind of reading advice is (the more sensibly titled) “How to Study a Modern Magazine” by Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, which appears as chapter 6 in their book Modernism in the Magazines (Yale UP, 2010). We encourage you to read this chapter (and the rest of the book, while you’re at it); it’s been an important source for what follows below—though we’re also departing somewhat from their approach. In their chapter, Scholes and Wulfman ask that people try to develop their suggestions (144); this text is a small effort to do so.

So what’s new here? Whereas Scholes and Wulfman walk you through a procedure for learning about a magazine and devising a reliable account of it, we’re not going to presume what your purpose is for reading the magazine. Rather, that’s something we want you to develop yourself—and hopefully the suggestions we offer below are flexible enough so they can suit any number of differently motivated projects people may come up with that involve reading magazines. In particular, we’re separating motives from objects from actions, and leaving it to you to mix and match these things to suit the job at hand. Below you’ll find an ordered list of concerns, but you should regard these offerings as you might a buffet: put on your plate whatever your appetite finds appealing.

Here, then, is our menu: first we’ll walk you through some preparations we think you ought to make before sitting down to work on a magazine; then we’ll introduce you to a handy checklist of items (things, objects: nouns) to look for in a magazine; and then we’ll suggest some methods for investigating them (actions, behaviors: verbs). Finally, we’ll provide a section where you can go and vent if your magazine-reading causes you any aggravation.


2. Framing investigative concerns

Motive for reading

When you first set out to study a magazine, perhaps the most important thing you can do is to ask yourself why: what you are looking for, and what do you hope to accomplish? You may not be entirely clear about that early on, but thinking through your motives for reading—perhaps you can devise a set of topics you’re interested in or questions you’d like answered—is a key first step when you’re working with magazines; these goals will give your reading focus and a sense of purpose, even as the magazine, with its wide variety of concerns, will try to pull you in a hundred different directions. Yielding to some of those distractions while reading is inevitable, and potentially quite illuminating, but having a sense of purpose from the outset (even if it’s vague, and even if it evolves over time) will help make your “getting lost” in the magazine a productive activity. Of course, if you have no idea of what you want to get from the magazine, you can always begin reading it with the hope of stumbling upon your motive along the way (perhaps it will even jump out at you); but realize that you’re almost certainly going to spend a lot of time wandering about first.

It’s hard for us to anticipate what your motive will be, but if you’re looking for some suggestions, you’ll find below "twelve projects for engaging a magazine," which may help push you in one direction or another.

Size of reading sample

When you’re thinking about your motive for reading, you’ll also want to consider what you'll need to read—how much of the magazine, and how many issues—in order to meet that goal. Is your motivating question sufficiently focused so you can answer it by looking at a single issue? Do you need instead to work with multiple issues? Or access the entire run of the magazine, which may stretch over many years? If you look below at the checklist of items found in a magazine, you’ll see that some tasks (like identifying which authors are regular contributors) will require you to sample multiple issues, while others (like discovering the size of the magazine’s circulation) will likely require you to seek out additional sources. If your question hinges on those broader kinds of concerns, you should prepare to work with the wider range of texts; conversely, if you have access to only one or two issues of the magazine, you ought to tailor your reading motive to the material at hand.

Thoughtfully selecting what you read is also important as it may keep you from feeling overwhelmed by all the things in the magazine. You may set out to read every word in a magazine, from start to finish, but that endeavor can feel awfully oppressive, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll profit from it. A good way to limit your reading sample is to focus on one aspect of the magazine: you may concentrate on a theme (war, representations of women, etc.), a genre (poetry), a department (letters to the editor), or maybe the writings of a single contributor. This will allow you work with multiple issues without feeling responsible for everything in them.

Access to external resources

We’ve already mentioned that certain motivating questions will require access to external sources. But even understanding the contents in a single issue will often depend on your conducting some research. As Scholes and Wulfman write: “a regular oscillation between internal and external perspectives is an absolute requirement for reading magazines of the past. We read them in order to learn about the past, but we read them better if we know enough about that past to grasp references and situate what is said in a cultural context” (149). It’s also a good idea, then, when you settle down to work with the magazine, to line up easy access to resources that can help educate you about the topics and time period represented by the magazine. Because your reading will continually draw you out of the magazine, being able to answer, quickly, questions you have about its content is key to making sense of the material (and it will also limit your frustration in having to stop and look things up).

The easiest, quickest way to assure access to that external perspective today is through the internet (via sites like Wikipedia, which can offer quick, mostly-reliable information on various arcane topics). If you can, try to read the magazine alongside some device that allows you to roam the internet without hassle, so you can drill down into different topics when the occasion arises.

You may also want to access materials that flesh out various contexts informing the magazine’s contents, such as issues of other magazines published at the time, information about contributors, and various histories of the period. Depending on your project, you might also want to line up resources about periodicals, like the relevant volume of Mott’s A History of American Magazines or Peterson’s Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Some of these texts already appear on the MJP site; we hope to collect, elsewhere on the teaching pages, links to available on-line resources that we don’t yet have.

If you’re working on magazines in the MJP archive, be sure (finally) to familiarize yourself with the search engine, so you can integrate searches of the database into your reading.


3. A checklist of categories (and questions) for an anatomical study of a magazine: what to look for

The following checklist is another resource that should be handy to have around while you’re reading a magazine. One way to understand a magazine is to take stock of its many different parts—its anatomy; the following checklist charts that anatomy by grouping the different things you’ll typically find in a magazine into eleven separate categories. (For an abbreviated version of this list, see Scholes and Wulfman 146-48.) Since the checklist offers a generic picture of the magazine as a whole, we recommend that you continually refer back to it, while reading any particular issue, in order to give you a broad overview of the magazine’s structure. By reminding you of the magazine's many different elements, the list should help you view it from as many different perspectives.

When fashioning this checklist, we resisted the temptation to number the different categories, since we feared that would turn the list into a series of prescribed steps in an unfolding investigation, and we firmly believe that no such sequence exists for reading magazines in all occasions. One thing we have done, though, is to sort the items within each category into one of three groups:

  • something that may be observed in a single issue of a magazine: (no color)
  • something that may only be observed across multiple issues of a magazine: +
  • something that may not be observable but needs to be inferred, interpreted, or researched: #

We hope this information will help you decide what kind of approach you’re able to pursue, given your resources—or, conversely, what further resources you will need to assemble in order to view the magazine in all of its dimensions.

This kind of approach—in which you tailor your investigation around your specific situation—is the one we endorse here and that informs this guide’s philosophy of reading magazines. If the checklist in this section foregrounds for you the different things you can look for in a magazine, section 4 below outlines some different projects you might pursue that involve some of those elements, along with the different kinds of reading you’ll likely need to undertake to accomplish those projects. Once you’ve identified your motive/goal for reading a magazine, we hope you’ll be able to mix and match items from either group to tailor an approach that suits your specific needs and resources.

Magazine contents

  • cover and title page: title, subtitle of magazine, featured articles (what overall impression do you get? focus vs. variety)
  • table of contents: again, what impression of whole?
  • material in the magazine about the magazine itself: masthead, descriptive summaries of contents and contributors (current or future), etc.
  • other kinds of verbal texts in the magazine (classified by genre or discipline): e.g., editorial, informative, creative, critical?
  • visual texts (graphics, images): illustrations, drawings, etchings, photographs, art reproductions, etc.
  • number and length of texts in the magazine
  • what proportion of the magazine (number of pages) is devoted to each kind of text? to individual texts?
  • advertisements: number, location, ad-size, kinds of products advertised
  • inserts
  • + which contents are original contributions and which are reprints from other publications?
  • + which magazine contents are recurring/regular departments or columns?
  • + which contents are part of a serialization?
  • + what sorts of contents does the magazine not publish?

Magazine contributors (authors, artists, etc.)

  • how big a presence does a contributor have in the magazine: e.g., how many contributions per author/artist (in one or more issues)? how many pages devoted to his/her work (in one or more issues)?
  • + what is the contributor's relationship is to the magazine as a whole (member of staff, regular contributor, etc.)
  • # what is the status of contributors today (well-known, respected, popular—or not) and at the time of publication?
  • # demographic info about the contributors: nationality, regional location, gender, race/ethnicity, class, age, etc.
  • # what does the contributors' appearance in the magazine say about it and the kind of content it publishes?

People responsible for the magazine as a whole

  • # editors and editorial staff: who makes editorial decisions? what control do the editors have over the paper?
  • # publishers: who are they? what is their relationship with the editors? their degree of influence over the paper?
  • # patrons: if the magazine relies on patronage, what influence do these patrons have over the paper?

The goal or purpose of the magazine

  • + what is the magazine's big idea (stated or implied)—its agenda, program, or tendency (check editorials)
  • + what is its political stance?
  • + what are its values?
  • + is there consensus or agreement (in outlook, politics, etc.) among various contributors?
  • + are there continuing themes and recurring motifs among various contents and issues?
  • + are there any patterns in what gets applauded or criticized in the magazine?

Design #1: organization and structure

  • layout: sequence or pattern of contents, location of the table of contents, grouping by genre, etc.
  • spatial relationship between texts and images, texts and ads
  • pagination: which pages are numbered, which are not? different pagination schemes for different items (like ads)? page numbering continues from previous issue?
  • + consistency: what in the layout stays the same from issue to issue, and what changes?
  • # familiarity: does the layout resemble the layout of other magazines? how similar and how different is it?

Design #2: medium/format (the magazine’s materiality)

  • physical dimension: height, width of page
  • length: number of pages
  • paper: quality, stock, weight, color, gloss
  • how the magazine is bound together: saddle-stitching, perfect binding (square spine)
  • type font, type size
  • columns: number, width
  • gutters: how much blank space around/between columns?
  • use of color: 2- or 4-color? how used (text, images, decoration)? where? how often?
  • house visual style (branding): cover design, logo or colophon, headlines, how articles are marked at the beginning (e.g., raised lettering, decoration, borders, color, etc.) and at the end (house end stop or end point), page headers and footers, paragraph indentation, visual ephemera: ornamentation, lines, blank spaces
  • # type of reproductions/method of reproducing images
  • # how the magazine is printed: offset lithography, rotogravure, letterpress, etc.

The magazine's audience or readers

  • # demographic info about readers: age, location (national/local), class, gender, race, etc. (check ads, letters to editor)
  • # range of readers: how narrow or wide is the target audience for the magazine?
  • # size of audience: circulation
  • # rhetorical (or implied) audience vs. actual readers

Magazine context #1: cultural community/network of other magazines (or publications)

  • # what kind of magazine is it: bibelot, little, quality, mass (slick, pulp), trade, professional, etc.? How does the magazine fit into the cultural and intellectual marketplace (its niche in the market)
  • # competitors #1: magazines most like it and that it competes with for contributors, readers
  • # competitors #2: magazines it consciously opposes (politically, aesthetically, etc.)
  • # what other publications is the magazine in dialogue with, and are they also its competitors?

Magazine context #2: the business of publishing the magazine

  • # what is the commercial market for the magazine? (note its actual and relative price, its periodicity, the size and distribution of its circulation)
  • # location of editorial offices and publisher
  • # does the magazine have sales agents?
  • # does the magazine have ad agents? an advertising department?
  • what press prints the magazine? where is the magazine printed/published?
  • # finances: where its money comes from (issue price, subscription, ads, patrons, etc.)
  • # means of distribution (how it gets to the reader): where and how it’s sold, circulated (mail, newsstand, bookseller, etc.)
  • # did the magazine publish different editions of each issue? in different cities/countries? if so, how do they differ?

The history of the magazine

  • + the magazine’s duration or lifespan: when it began, when it ended, how many issues it published?
  • + the magazine’s evolution over time: what about the magazine changes, and what remains the same? (check all elements above)
  • + which advertisers are a steady source of income over time?
  • # how and why the magazine begins/ends when it does?

4. Method: how to proceed

Much of the work of coming to terms with a magazine, as Scholes and Wulfman attest, involves seeing how the separate concerns outlined in the above checklist hang together or affect one another. Below, we’re offering some ideas for appreciating that interplay from different angles. The first section addresses ideas for specific projects you might pursue, while the second enumerates different ways of reading that cut across most of the projects.

Twelve projects for engaging a magazine . . .

  1. Surveying the magazine #1. In "How to Study a Modern Magazine," Scholes & Wulfman offer a model of how one may arrive at a balanced overview of a magazine, one that surveys its many different elements and then puts the findings together. The checklist from section 3 above can loom large in such an project: while approaching a magazine from various directions, try to fill out as many sections of the checklist as you can, and then draw on that data in order to compose out a short (e.g., 1-page) descriptive summary of the magazine. (For the brave of heart, you might also try to compose a one-sentence summary of the magazine: it will force you select which of its features are most important to its identity.) Then test your summary against a published account of the magazine: how does your account compare?
  2. Surveying the magazine #2. You might also try inverting #1 above: begin by locating a short written account of the magazine you're interested in, and then test its description against one or two issues of the magazine, using the checklist to guide your investigation into the magazine's different parts. Then edit (correct, complicate, expand, consolidate, etc.) the written account to accommodate any discrepancies between it and your first-hand experience of the magazine.
  3. Evaluating the magazine. While the surveys above revolve around your describing (as impartially as possible) the magazine, you might also want to evaluate the magazine in light of your findings (though additional research will almost certainly be necessary). Some questions to consider: What did the magazine accomplish? Did it achieve what its editors wanted to accomplish? Was it good at what it did? What cultural value or significance did the magazine have in its day, and how is it regarded today? What, if anything, did it change?
  4. Surveying a single strand of the magazine. Because each of the projects above aspires to grasp the character of the magazine as a whole, they will likely require a great deal of time and effort—which may be more than you can afford. To make your investigation more practical, you might want to begin by reading a published account of the magazine (which you can use to frame your understanding of the magazine as a whole), and then quickly focus in on one part or aspect of the magazine that runs through several issues: e.g., you might chart a regular department of the magazine, or a single genre, or a topic that gets debated in a series of issues, or an author who is a recurring contributor to the magazine. Then you might consider: 1. how your specific subject relates to the magazine as a whole (did you find anything about it that complicates the overview of the magazine that you started with?), and 2. how your detailed examination of your subject relates to other published accounts about it (e.g., how that topic is addressed in histories, or how your contributor is described in biographies or criticism).
  5. Surveying multiple strands of the magazine. You can also take project #4 above and push it toward project #1 by distributing the labor across a group of people: have different members of a class sign up to survey (and become experts about) different parts of the magazine, and then have the class pool their findings in order to arrive at a collective overview of the magazine as a whole.
  6. Discerning the magazine's audience—via the ads. According to Scholes & Wulfman,“One of the first steps . . . in reading a magazine of a century ago, is to get a sense of the readership the magazine is trying to reach, so that we can imagine ourselves as members of that group without losing our own perspective. An attempt to understand the audience of any journal will lead us to most of the other elements involved in reading a magazine from the past” (145). We completely agree about the need to understand the magazine's target audience; but who that original audience was is also one of the most difficult things to find out about a magazine, and likely one of the last things you'll be able to infer, with any certainty, from your reading (Scholes & Wulfman seem to concede as much when they say your investigation of the audience will lead you to “most of the other elements” in the magazine). So how do you quickly get a sense of the magazine's readers? One place to begin is in the advertisements: after all, the advertisers agreed to buy ad space in the magazine because they believed the readers would be interested in their products. So what do the ads, collectively, tell us about who was likely reading the magazine? Try to develop some sense of the reader's (or readers') character, and then test it against other texts in the magazine, like the editorial section.
  7. Discerning the magazine's audience—via letters to the editor. The "letters to the editor" section of a magazine is another place where you can begin to flesh out the magazine's readers: this is, after all, where we can hear the voices of (presumably) real readers, responding to the magazine's contents. Thus, you might try to build a portrait of the magazine's audience based on a sampling of its published letters. This will likely be harder to do, though, than working with ads, for multiple reasons: the published letters may not be representative of the audience as a whole, and to make sense of what they're saying you'll need to trace out debates that run across multiple issues, read the texts from earlier issues of the magazine that the letters are responding to, and place in the context of the day the topics the letters discuss. Once you've drawn such a picture, you might want to test it against the audience addressed by the magazine's ads.
  8. Comparative analysis #1: revising first impressions. Another way to make more practical the task of surveying the magazine is to concentrate on building a summary of a single issue (filling out for it what you can from the checklist), and then testing that description against the contents of another issue of the magazine—perhaps the next one that was published, or perhaps one that is further removed in time (e.g., five years or ten years later).
  9. Comparative analysis #2: multiple magazines. A more ambitious project would be to undertake project #8 but this time compare your magazine with one or more different magazines published during the same time; these other magazines can all be from the same "genre" as yours (e.g., little, quality, mass, specialized, etc.), or you might compare examples of different kinds of magazines. What do the likenesses and differences you find say about your magazine's relationship to the periodicals market, to the events of the day, etc.?
  10. Comparative analysis #3: reading the editorial content against the ads. Here's another interesting way to gauge the character of a magazine: by drawing various connections between the contents of the magazine and the ads that help fund it. Do the interests and values expressed in the editorial sections of the magazine (and perhaps in its published articles) resonate with the kinds of ads it runs? And how does the layout of the magazine physically relate contents to ads?
  11. Comparative analysis #4: close-reading the magazine's bibliographical code. Select a text from the magazine that has subsequently been reprinted elsewhere, in a different medium; then try to articulate the bibliographical codes of the magazine by comparing how the subsequent version differs from the version in the magazine: consider any changes in wording and punctuation, but also how the text is presented on the page, where it appears in the magazine, how it is categorized, and whether any materials surrounding it affect how you view it.
  12. Inferring historical context. Find a history text that recounts the major events that occurred during the year in which your magazine was published, then look in the magazine for anything that seem to instantiate those historical events; does the magazine treatment change in any way how you now think of them? Or maybe do the reverse: closely read different sections of the magazine, looking for anything that relates to the historical, social, or political moment in which is was published; then, on the basis of that evidence, try to describe some of the ways that living then was different from living today.

. . . and twelve kinds of reading

Regardless of what project you pursue, your actual process of reading the magazine will invariably will be a sloppy affair: you’ll shift from flipping through whole pages and closely reading specific texts and text fragments; your focus will continually drift from one thing to another; you’ll not understand or misread discussions for lack of familiarity with the context or assumptions of the day; you’ll break off an article in mid-paragraph to track down a referent you want to understand better. If the question is How do you read a magazine?, the answer is simple: in many different ways, almost all of the time. Here's an enumeration of twelve different ways to read a magazine—along with some suggestions for getting more out of your reading.

  1. Skimming/browsing. This is probably what you’ll do when you first open the magazine: you’ll thumb through it in order to orient yourself and acquaint yourself with its contents, one item at a time (note how that's probably not what you do when you open a novel or textbook). To lend more purpose to this first encounter, you might give yourself 60 seconds to flip through the pages and then write a sentence summing up what the magazine seems to be about. Then flip through the magazine again, but give yourself 5 minutes this time and look more closely. What did you notice the second time that you missed the first time? What about your earlier impression of the magazine would you now change?
  2. Surveying. This may also be a type of reading you undertake early in your encounter with a magazine: you try to get a sense of the general terrain of the magazine by standing back from it; accordingly, surveying complements skimming, which hews more closely to the textual surface, or perhaps trades off with it. Naturally, studying the magazine's table of contents is an important part of this readerly activity.
  3. Grazing. More methodical than skimming and surveying, grazing ensues when you land upon something in the magazine that you think you want to read: you exert more attention to the text and begin to read continuous paragraphs, but with enough superficiality (and lack of commitment) so you can easily move on to another, better section of the magazine at the drop of a dime.
  4. Sampling. Sampling combines grazing and surveying: you methodically go through the magazine, taking stock of what you find, but maintain a greater distance from the contents than you do when grazing. When done with some rigor, sampling is probably an essential tool for encompassing the contents of many issues of a magazine.
  5. Rooting around. This likely describes how you read when you're looking for something specific in the magazine but don't have the time or interest to read continuously for it; instead, you look for keyterms or other symptoms of your topic, and then dig down into the text to confirm your hunch—not unlike the way hogs root about for turnips. (For anyone put off by hog metaphor: we can also call this prospecting.)
  6. Selective close-reading. Once you've confirmed that it's in your interest to settle upon a text, you may choose to devote close attention to it, perhaps bringing to bear upon it the kind of reading practices that you reserve for acknowledged pieces of literature.
  7. Close-reading #2: deciphering the magazine's bibliographical code. This is a sort of semiotic activity that scholars of periodicals encourage: in addition to reading closely the language in the text, you take stock of all the other things going on in the magazine that contribute to its display on the page: e.g., typeface, margins, spacings, illustrations, other visual cues, surrounding materials, etc.
  8. Moving in and out. Because you're still deciding what to read when you're reading a magazine, your attention is likely to fluctuate considerably in the process. That's one way you move in and out of a magazine text, but that same dynamic describes the process of reading the magazine in conjunction with external sources: paradoxically, in order to drill down into some aspect of the text, you'll likely have to leave the text momentarily to research it, thus moving in and out—or back and forth, between primary and secondary texts.
  9. Moving between observation and inference. This dynamic (akin to #8 above) typifies all reading, but it's more pronounced in old magazines, which are written for a specific audience that's not us and at a very specific time we hardly know. Understanding what we read thus requires us to reconstruct, through inferences and research, much of the information that the magazine's original audience knew almost instinctively.
  10. Seizing prematurely on particulars. Many of the inferences you make while reading a magazine will turn out to be wrong, so you're continually in the process of discovering your mistake and then devising a new inference that can better fit the evidence. But this process describes merely the process of decoding old texts; when you set yourself the additional task of learning about the magazine as a whole, the potential for error rises exponentially, for now you're reading everything synecdochically: each part of the magazine is construed as potentially representing the whole. The result is the premature fetishization of particulars; as you come to terms with the magazine, you will inevitably misrepresent it by basing your account on only partial evidence. The solution is to keep reading and complicating your inferences.
  11. Drifting (or yielding to distraction). The mother of all reading behaviors, drifting typifies the normal process of moving unpredictably from one aspect of the magazine to another, either from a lack of attention or, perhaps, because of too much of it (e.g., #8 and #9 above). This readerly behavior is an understandable response to the medium: reading a magazine may feel like being pulled in twenty different directions at once. The next reading activity below is designed to keep you on track, but there's something to be said for giving in to the pull of other items and getting lost in the magazine—certainly that's one (albeit haphazard) way to survey the terrain of the magazine. Maybe try this: to make this drifting profitable, don’t stop until you pick up data about each of the eleven categories in the magazine checklist. Or quickly chart your wayward course as it happens, so later you can retrace the steps you took, and measure the distance you traveled from point A to point Z: can you discern any latent progress here?
  12. Circling back. Here's one way to counter readerly drifting (and “getting lost”): allow yourself the diversions described above, but be sure first to set yourself one task, and then keep circling back to it until it’s done. This way you will accomplish what you intended, and you will have picked up lots more along the way.

5. Hazards and frustrations (pending)


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