About Editing

Editors at Work: What Kind of Design Brings in Readers

By Jack Limpert

Editors spend lots of time trying to come up with good story ideas, working with writers, editing stories. But if the magazine doesn’t have good heads, decks and captions, a lot of those stories are likely to go unread.

Many readers graze—they flip through the pages looking for something that captures their attention. The elements that go with a story can be the difference between a reader spending 10 minutes with a magazine or an hour.

Heads and decks are important, but in reading lots of city magazines, I think picture captions are the most underappreciated element of all.

Nothing stops a reader as well as an interesting picture. To be effective, the picture caption has to do two things: Give the reader some information about who or what’s in the picture, and make it sound so interesting that the reader thinks, “This story may be worth reading.”

But it’s hard to come up with really good captions—I’ve written plenty of bad ones.

Working with Photographers
You first have to take the time to work with photographers to get good caption information.  For many years, the New York Times had a photographer, George Tames, in its Washington bureau. The editors in the bureau discovered that George came back not only with good pictures, but also with some personal stuff that often was better than the reporter had. In getting the picture, George would try to loosen up the subject by talking about family, hobbies, anything they might have in common. The subject didn’t feel interviewed—it was just friendly talk. And the Times’ editors learned to debrief George every time he came back with his pictures.

At The Washingtonian, we’ve tried that approach and often failed—it takes time, effort, and cooperation to connect the caption writer with the photographer and to encourage photographers to do more than just take the picture. A lot of captions get written that simply pick up interesting details from the story. That’s okay—it’s better than a dry description of what’s in the picture.

Is the Layout the Problem?
The second challenge for editors is working with the art department to get space for good picture captions. At The Washingtonian, captions are normally written after the art department has picked the photos being used and done a tentative layout.

Layouts often get done with not much space for a caption. Sometimes three or four pictures are grouped together and the editor is asked to write one caption for those three or four pictures.

I asked one of our designers, Tom White, who has worked at Los Angeles magazine and other top publications, what he’s thinking about when he’s putting captions into a layout. Here’s what he said: “Captions should be short, concise and small so they don’t distract from the visual experience. Grouping captions together allows for a cleaner look and also ensures more control of the visual experience. It boils down to the hierarchy of elements on the page. Photo captions live just above credits in most cases, so they need to be a subtle presence. There’s no need for a photo caption to be jumping off the page and slapping the reader in the face.”

That’s the kind of design that wins awards.

Look at People Magazine
But what’s the most successful consumer magazine out there? It’s People magazine—it has a big circulation and readers pay real money to get it. Here is its subscription offer: Get 54 weekly issues at $1.86 per issue plus 23¢ P&H per issue, plus 8 FREE issues, for a total of 62! That’s 54% off the cover price!

Those numbers add up to $103.26  for a one-year sub plus the eight free issues.

Does People run good picture captions? It sure does. Are they subtle elements? No. Does it use caption words like: “Clockwise from upper left”? Almost never.

City Magazine Design
So which kind of design is best for city magazines? That’s an owner’s decision. Phil Merrill was the long-time publisher of The Washingtonian. We once were talking about awards and he said, “I don’t care all that much about awards. There are only two numbers I care about: the renewal rate and newsstand sales.”

As for heads, decks, and pull quotes, there aren’t many guidelines. It’s often clarity versus cleverness. With service stories, clarity is probably more important. As for cleverness, it adds life and fun to a magazine but can easily be overdone. Maybe most important is that the head and deck have the same feel and character as the story. And does the type work well with the art.

Ken DeCell, a long-time editor at The Washingtonian, thinks the opening spread of any story should follow the same three-second rule as the cover: Can the reader figure out what it’s about in three seconds? He also points out that some of the best heads steal from song, movie, and book titles. He doesn’t think editors should be bashful about doing it. My favorite head of all those I wrote—Hope All Things, Endure All Things—came from the Bible.

First published in the September 2011 newsletter of the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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