The New York Review of Magazines » Zachary Sniderman The New York Review of Magazines Mon, 28 Jun 2010 15:19:22 +0000 en hourly 1 Then: Dickens and Dostoevsky; Now: People and Us Weekly Thu, 13 May 2010 04:01:48 +0000 Zachary Sniderman

By Zachary Sniderman

What do the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens and Henry James — serialized in such class periodicals as The Russian Messenger, All the Year Round and The Atlantic Monthly — have in common with People, Us Weekly, Star and the other celebrity gossip weeklies stereotypically associated with exploitation and junk journalism? The answer: a shared literary genre. It turns out that from their pithy opening sentences to their human dramas (and their gripping cliffhanger endings), whether they know it or not, today’s gossip weeklies have borrowed an incredibly successful formula — the one that kept readers returning week after week — pioneered by illustrious literary predecessors.

On the surface, contemporary gossip weeklies appear to be simply reporting celebrity news. (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shared a romantic dinner for two!) But beneath the surface, it is not merely the story of a date-night dinner. It is the latest installment in the long-running suspense story of “Brangelina,” complete with all the tricks of a more-than one hundred-year-old trade.

Serialization hit its apex in the 19th century, drawing in writers as different as Dostoevsky, Dickens, James, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, to name but a few. Individual chapters or installments were printed regularly in well-respected periodicals until the story was finished. But the stories that appeared were not arbitrarily carved out of finished novels. Serial authors wrote a new chapter every month or week, updating the story as it developed, adding details that would keep readers hooked. The longer a story ran, the better, since authors were paid each time they were published. This is partly why Dickens’ novels are so long: More chapters equaled more cash. Serialization is still wildly profitable. People raked in more than $900 million in 2009, according to Magazine Publishers of America. Us Weekly and Star were not far behind.

Although there was no single formula for writing a successful serialized novel — and the great writers certainly took their liberties — there were basic themes, character types, plot twists and, of course, the golden rule of serialization: Always, always end on a cliffhanger. Will Oliver Twist escape London’s gutters? Will the brothers Karamazov actually kill their father? These were the cliffhangers that kept readers reading.

Take Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel about country boy Pip’s aspirations to make it as a gentleman and woo his beautiful, albeit frosty, love, Estella.

Chapter 1-3 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Pip, a poor boy, meets an escaped convict who threatens his life and demands Pip help him.
Chapter 11 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: Pip steals food for the convict. The police arrive at Pip’s home. Pip is overly trusting and naïve of the world. He blindly loves rich girl Estella.
Chapter 15 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen: Pip’s sister is viciously attacked, becoming an invalid. It’s believed Orlick, Pip’s peer and fellow apprentice, is responsible.
Chapter 18 – A truth is revealed, changing the hero: Pip receives a large sum of money from an unknown benefactor. Pip travels to London to become a gentleman.
Chapter 22-26 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. A hero haunted by transgressions of family: Pip misbehaves in London’s high-life out of naïveté and jealousy for Estella.
Chapter 34 – Tragedy in the family: Pip’s sister dies.
Chapter 38 – A love rejected: Estella is courted by another man; Pip is heartbroken.
Chapter 39-55 – A fall from grace; the hero is destitute: The convict was Pip’s benefactor! They meet but the convict is arrested and sentenced to death. His immense wealth reverts to the state and Pip loses everything.
Chapter 57 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Pip, now penniless, falls ill and is tended to by his poor family whom he had forgotten.
Chapter 58 – The hard road to reclaiming respect: Pip attends a humble wedding ceremony, showing newfound respect.
Chapter 59 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition; the hero must prove himself alone: Pip goes into business with an old friend. He spends 11 years gaining moderate wealth.
Chapter 59 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Pip returns home to find Estella divorced and with children. They resolve to be friends, but perhaps now they can finally be together?

Now take Tiger Woods, the story of a premier athlete’s salacious fall and his fight to reclaim his beloved family and beautiful, albeit distant, wife Elin Nordegren. Below is a week-by-week turn of events from the Tiger Woods story, according to’s hooks, headlines and cliffhangers.

Prologue – Success and happiness for our hero: Tiger Woods, golf mega star, is happily married and on a lengthy winning streak.
Week 1 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Tiger crashes his car and questions swirl around how he got his injuries. “In the background of [a 911] call, a woman is heard screaming, ‘What happened?’ The caller responds, ‘We don’t know what happened. We’re trying to figure that out right now.’”
Week 2 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: A cocktail waitress claims Tiger had an affair with her; he withdraws from a tournament due to injuries. “‘Hey, it’s Tiger. I need you to do me a huge favor,’ Woods allegedly said in one voicemail. ‘Can you please take your name off your phone…’ Woods is facing scrutiny over a rumored affair with a New York club hostess in the wake of his one-car accident in Florida last week.”
Week 3 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen for our hero: Tiger’s friend says he regrets introducing him to now-wife Elin and more women claim they had affairs with Tiger. “Alleged Tiger Mistress Angry About His Other Women.”
Week 4 – A terrible truth is revealed, changing the hero: Tiger admits infidelity and puts his golf career on hold. “Woods, 33, previously apologized for unspecified ‘sins’ and ‘transgressions.’ A string of women have now come forward claiming to have had affairs with him.”
Week 5 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. Our hero is haunted by familial transgressions: Tiger loses his first sponsor, Accenture, because of his tarnished image. Perhaps his father’s infidelity is to blame for Tiger’s faults? “Report: Dad’s Cheating Ways Tortured Tiger.”
Week 6 – A love rejected: Elin plans to split from Tiger; she is spending Christmas in Sweden without her husband. “On Thursday, workers began moving large items … out of the couple’s home in Windermere, Fla., and Nordegren was seen giving them instructions, according to the New York Post.”
Week 7 – A fall from grace. The hero is destitute: Tiger’s mother is angry and disappointed in her son. Tiger drops out of the public eye, and loses another sponsor: AT&T. “Where In The World Is Tiger Woods?”
Week 8 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Tiger appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, Elin will stay with her husband but keeps her distance; Elin’s attention is on her kids. “Tiger Woods’s Wife Focusing On Kids.”
Week 9 – The hard road to reclaiming public respect: Tiger loses free cars from General Motors, which he endorsed until 2008, and rumors spread that he has checked into sex rehab. “Buzz: Is Tiger In Mississippi Sex Rehab?”
Week 10 – A shamed hero makes amends: Tiger plans a press conference to publicly apologize; Elin will stay with her man, for now. “Can Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren Save Their Marriage?” “Inside His Struggle.”
Week 11 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition: Tiger returns to sex therapy and announces plans to eventually return to golf. Gatorade drops Tiger as a sponsor. “‘[People] go to work 8 to 5 and go home to have a life with the family. Tiger can’t do that,’ [his mother] said, also noting that his return to Buddhism ‘will make him a much better person.’”
Week 12 – A shattered family begins to mend: Tiger is home from rehab, but will Elin stay? “Was It Enough?” A three-page spread on whether his public apology to his family, friends and fans was enough to win her back. “‘Tiger still has a long way to go, and Elin knows that,’ says her friend. ‘She will stay around to see what happens in terms of public support and endorsements. But if it weren’t for the kids and for their future, she’d already be long gone.’”
Week 13 – A momentous event to determine the hero’s future: Tiger announces he will play at The Masters tournament — a prestigious contest he has won four times. “It’s Official: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Golf.”
Week 14 – The hero must prove himself: Elin will skip the tournament, just as she skipped his past press conferences. “Source: Elin Nordegren Doesn’t Want To Attend The Masters.”
Week 15 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Tiger finishes with a respectable but personally disappointing fourth-place in The Masters tournament.

People’s March 1 cover states: “Elin’s Painful Choice: New Scandal, New Details… Tiger’s wife weighs the ultimate question: keep him or dump him?” The actual article starts with Elin dolling herself up the day before Valentine’s Day as Tiger lives alone in rehab. The peace between the two is fragile, friends say, even as Tiger’s mistresses continue to make news. He has forsaken his own friends to make a new start. Elin, a child of divorce herself, is protecting her children from the same fate. The story’s last section returns to the cliffhanger: “The big question Elin has to figure out: Is Tiger genuinely remorseful or just trying to clean up his image? … “It is up to her to see if she can believe in him again.”

It is a story of love, fame and betrayal. One of the world’s greatest athletes is heartsick as his wife contemplates whether they can ever have a future again. Written by… a team of journalists based in Orlando and New York.

Of course, gossip weeklies don’t just write about Tiger Woods; each set of celebrity dramas contains a unique storyline. Take Brangelina, for example. There’s no real news peg if they went on a romantic dinner — so why is it splashed on the covers? Years of updates on their courtship, marriage and day-to-day life have conditioned readers to care. Cliffhangers like “Will they stay together?” are answered next issue when we learn Brad bought Angelina’s meal. Some development of the story appears each week: New details are added, new photos are taken and new insights are provided. Each week is a new installment.

The heroes of modern day serial novels, like Brangelina and Tiger Woods, fall victim to the same high human dramas that characterize classic literature. Hero with a tragic flaw? Jake Pavelka, the star of the latest season of ABC’s popular reality show The Bachelor, seemed perfect in every way, but “mistakenly” chose Vienna to be his wife. Us Weekly claimed: “Jake’s Mistake — as Vienna lies to Jake about a boyfriend, [previous contestant] Ali gets her sweet revenge.” Rags to riches? Find any story about Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, two teens that have had astronomically rapid rises to fame. Unattainable romantic interests? The desire for a will-they-won’t-they relationship is satisfied by Twilight lead stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. “I wish them all the happiness in the world,” said Rob’s aunt in Star. “I know for sure it’s a true love match!”

But are gossip weeklies really serialized novels? Is Tiger Woods really a modern-day Great Expectations? Do the gossip magazines even mean to ape an entire genre? Doesn’t intent matter? And if all of this is true, do those magazines now qualify as high art or are they still just exploitation? All this and more to be answered next issue….

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Mag-a-zine [mag-uh-zeen]: noun Wed, 12 May 2010 04:01:36 +0000 Zachary Sniderman By Zachary Sniderman

We here at NYRM are celebrating the magazine in all its printed, online, left, right, political, cultural — err, what is it again? It’s a catch-all brand of journalism that is easy to recognize but not necessarily easy to define. To help pin down a definition, we asked industry folks, academics — and even a student or two — a simple question: What is a magazine? Their answers weren’t so simple.

“I figure altogether magazines have less of a tie to news hooks and have an
open philosophy towards layout, design and, in that sense, curation of the story.”
Lam Thuy Vo, multimedia editor, The Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong

“To me, a magazine has to be printed, with colorful photos and interesting prose.
I’m old-school when it comes to my magazines.”
Cilia Kohn, blogger and business development associate, British Consulate-General

“Unlike a newspaper, at which all readers are welcome for their money, a magazine
caters to members of a club. Thus, The New York Times may, when occasion warrants, write
about guns and ammo, but Guns and Ammo magazine must always steer the conversation
back to the two things in its name.”
Anthony Ramirez, former reporter, The New York Times

“Magazines are built to both inform and delight. I think the latter aspect is really the defining quality.”
Andrew Nusca, associate editor, CBS Interactive

“A good magazine is a community of thought, a place to tell and read good stories,
to learn and to understand. It has a voice, a point of view that speaks to its readers every
week/month/quarter — it carries on a kind of conversation with them unavailable in a newspaper report.”
David Funkhouser, journalism student, Columbia University

“The word ‘magazine’ means storage space for dynamite. A magazine is full
of surprises and it can explode at any minute.”
Jeremy Leslie, founder, magCulture blog (from a 2009 post)

“Magazines take news and information one step beyond what constitutes ‘news’
— whether it’s developing a topic into an in-depth feature or adding an ‘a-ha’ spin on
well-known topics, the role of the magazines in today’s society is to spark further
discussion and water cooler conversations.”
Rachel Chang, editor-in-chief, J-14 magazine

“A print magazine to me is the perfect mix of art and education. A magazine
offers a journey, aspirational wants, visual delights and insight.”
Sophia Brown, integrated market manager at Here Media, Out

“Online-only magazines are an evolution of magazine journalism’s defining characteristic:
going more deeply into more aspects of a story than afforded by the 1,000-word news
analysis piece in a daily paper or the 90-second segment on the nightly news.”
Greg Bocquet, multimedia reporter,

“Magazines are an equal balance between presentation and content. Graphics and illustration
bring the content to life, just as the content gives its design heft and meaning.”
Zachary Sniderman, journalism student, Columbia University

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Filter Tue, 04 May 2010 20:30:58 +0000 Zachary Sniderman Filter]]> By Zachary Sniderman

Circulation: 85,000
Date of Birth: 2002
Frequency: Five times a year
Price: $4.99

If you can find it in a store, Filter is hard to miss on the shelf. Filter sticks out, and not just because it is physically larger and usually much thicker than Rolling Stone or Spin. It is also not just about mainstream music culture. Filter focuses on “good” music, freely translated to mean “indie” music and the culture that surrounds it.

Each issue of Filter is stacked with long-form artist Q&A’s, photo portfolios and profiles of well-known acts like Julian Casablancas and Peter Gabriel. A healthy chunk of space is reserved for “Getting to Know” new bands and spotlighting bands “You Should Already Know.” The back of the magazine is liberally sprinkled with bite-size album reviews and an eclectic mix of pop and indie culture events, updates and news.

The real draw of Filter is its approach to the indie scene. Big-name magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin, Q and NME are fantastic resources but usually focus on established acts and rock aristocracy. Indie publications devoted solely to uncovering unknown new acts are often snarky or appear condescending. This is why most people don’t like hipsters in the first place.

Explaining Filter’s approach, publisher Alan Miller, who founded the magazine along with Alan Sartirana, said, “We felt at the time that there were no magazines paying any attention to what we perceived to be good music . . . not what’s most popular but what’s actually of substance and quality.” This outlook gave birth to the magazine’s motto, mandate and raison-d’être: “Good Music Will Prevail.”

Filter is still very much in the business of telling you what is current and interesting, but it doesn’t make you feel like an idiot in the process. The emphasis is on narrative writing and nuanced interviews. “We always aim to be smart,” Miller said. “We’re not about top ten lists.… [Filter’s] really about giving the opportunity for people to learn [and] to have a creative forum to discuss music and culture.”

Snobbish snark is replaced with intimate looks at the music world. An interview with the L.A.-based artist AM ends with this captured insight: “I don’t know anybody who responds to lighthearted lyrics — what’s there to grab onto? I think human beings can relate more to pain than they can to pleasure.…”

A candid profile of Mos Def, the rap artist and sometimes political pundit, had this pull-quote: “It’s one thing to be the greatest; it’s another thing to be necessary. The best are the most necessary: those who take less than they give and love more than they hate.”

Almost every interview, snippet and feature reaches for those culturally expansive, almost existential moments in which musicians contemplate their own art. Even more surprising is Filter’s ability to draw those moments out of their subjects and then lay them on paper.

But Filter does have its failings. The “good” music Miller espouses is a certain narrow brand of rock ’n’ roll, with only brief forays into other genres like hip-hop. The magazine’s focus on long features and its seasonal publication — just five issues per year — also limits how much news it can carry.

Filter has spawned several offshoots, including a Good Music Guide, a regional e-newsletter and Filter Unbound, an online-only supplement to the magazine. Resources are most clearly focused on Filter, the magazine, with these offshoots acting more like repositories for print content. The website pales in comparison to news-focused sites like and, which quickly break and spread music news online.

That is by design. Filter has always put its stock in print. Miller compared buying each print issue to going out and buying a memorable album. It may be too late to point out that nowadays most albums are downloaded in seconds with just a couple of clicks and that the era of buying tangible products — music and music magazines among them — at real stores is fading. But Filter’s defiant insistence on print, quality content and music is what makes it stand out from its peers.

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Music More Than Myself Mon, 19 Apr 2010 07:09:59 +0000 Zachary Sniderman Filter tracks the history of northern soul.]]> By Zachary Sniderman

I rediscovered an article from the Winter ’10 issue of Filter on Keb Darge and the history of northern soul music. This style of music is perhaps most easily described as mod-Motown, though even that doesn’t really do it justice. Good on Filter for going against the industry-grain (thank goodness it isn’t another article on Grizzly Bear/Gaga/etc.). Subtle, elegant writing from Cord Jefferson brings the movement to life, making it a history lesson worth taking.

Filter unfortunately does not have a link to the story online, so you might have to go out to a local newsstand to read the whole story. Until then, here’s a little back-info on northern soul, and a sample song to get you going.

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Celebrity Weeklies As Serial Novels? Fri, 16 Apr 2010 19:37:15 +0000 Zachary Sniderman By Zachary Sniderman

One of the biggest challenges to modern print serialization is, unsurprisingly, the Internet. A reader looking for celebrity gossip can just type “Tiger Woods” into and get whatever info they want, bypassing print entirely. Heck, they might even be directed to the (incredibly robust) websites of People, Us Weekly or Star. Other online “gossip wires” such as TMZ or Perez Hilton sometimes beat celebrity weeklies to the punch. They are, however, fighting a different fight.

Aggregation websites and gossip wires actually help celebrity weeklies stand out as a genre. The Internet is about speed and news. The printed form is about narrative and longevity. Different magazines, such as our test-subject triumvirate – People, Us Weekly, Star – cultivate unique narrative arcs that draw readers in by how each story is told.

People’s stories touch on Tiger’s anxiety and Elin’s pain. Us Weekly ran with a story titled, “Picking Up The Pieces.” Theirs is a story of brilliant recovery, two beautiful, talented people struggling against a world of pressure to make it work. The story ends with an optimistic line, “As for whether the pair can repair their shattered relations, one source is hopeful, printing the headline, ‘Love is there.’”

That Us Weekly story is followed next week (the same week as a People story titled “Was It Enough”) with a full page that states: “Can one public apology make up for nearly three months of heartbreak? The answer appears to be yes.” Us Weekly keeps up the hopeful message. They applaud Woods’ reconciliatory speech and suggest it’s exactly what Elin needed to hear to forgive him. Star, the rebel of the group, swings out to the other side of the spectrum claiming, in the same week, that “Tiger Cheating Again!”

The individual narrative arcs make the stories more than just “information,” territory already owned by aggregators like Google. People writes about two wounded people wondering if they can love. Us Weekly writes about a couple fixing a relationship destroyed by circumstance. And Star, well, Star’s just getting started…

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Got A College Thesis? HuffPo Might Just Print It. Wed, 07 Apr 2010 07:30:59 +0000 Zachary Sniderman By Zachary Sniderman

Didn’t know that HuffPo was doing this until Ms. Huffington Post came to speak at the J-school this past Wednesday (April 7th). Huffington spoke about the incredible theses being produced across the nation before deadpanning: “and who actually reads them?” Rather than slip into oblivion, HuffPo has taken some theses and started running them on their site under the “College” section. The suicide of one Cornell student in mid-March prompted them to run this thesis by Rob Fishman titled “Cornell Suicides: Do Ithaca’s Gorges Invite Jumpers?” It’s a sort of morbid way to start the initiative but laudable all the same. It will be interesting, moving forward, if the theses will need news pegs or if the quality of their thought will be enough to get them published.

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Gossip Mill Tue, 30 Mar 2010 14:16:11 +0000 Zachary Sniderman By Zachary Sniderman

I’m starting to get a bad reputation. The good folks at Gristedes think I’m addicted to celebrity weeklies and I can’t really blame them. Every week when I pick up groceries I (now) always stop at the magazine racks to pick out the newest issue of People, Us Weekly and Star Magazine. Every week. For about three months now. Heck, even I think it sounds like a problem.

I’m doing this for the sake of journalist integrity. My feature story for The New York Review of Magazines is on celebrity gossip weeklies and how the stories in these magazines change from week to week. In order to track the changes, I obviously need to pick up the issues each week. My local Gristedes happens to be the easiest place to do so. I suppose everyone has his or her cross to bear.

What I did notice is that it’s surprisingly difficult to tell when a new issue of People, Us Weekly or Star actually comes out. This is largely due to the accepted standard of cover design. Gossip weeklies usually forgo the magazine standard of featuring a cover model and instead plaster small tidbits or a collage of celebrities. The result is that the covers of gossip weeklies start to look homogeneous from week to week. It’s an interesting design choice and one that extends to most of the genre (even including the nearly-universal neon color schemes).

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