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Reading between the lines

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POSTED August 3, 2011 12:19 a.m.

Yesterday started innocent enough.

It was one of those transitionary mornings when you can no longer manipulate your brain into believing vacation is indefinite.

I poked back through the magazines I quickly devoured when I returned home and wondered why it’s so easy to get through them.

I decided to count the ads and look at how much actual reading is required, because a lot of it seemed to be tips and tactics with illustrations taking up the majority of the page, which are great, but don’t require much imagination.

I put on a pot of coffee, scrapped my other column I had 90-percent finished and took note.

Cup of coffee number 1: Almost half of the available 88 pages in the August issue of Outdoor Life was advertising something, starting with 3-pages of Cymbalta fine-print before we even get to the table of contents. From there, almost every other page in the first 20 is a full-page ad.

The cover story appears on page 47 but is mostly instructional, which is obviously the driving purpose of a magazine such as this. In fact only one story really qualifies as something other than instruction.

I compared that with a July 1994 Outdoor Life which as a side note cost $2.75 in Canada. The July ’94 issue was 94 pages and had about the same ad scheme only the placement was different.

After a cigarette ad imploring me to switch to low tar, I got the table of contents on page 2 and was sent through back to back to back columns from the hunting editor, hunting dog editor and field editor respectively.

That was immediately followed by a four-page feature story on the plight of salmon fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington. There was even a story about a 77-year old grandma that fishes for 500-pound sharks.

Cup of coffee number 2: I compared the August 2011 Field and Stream with its June 1994 counterpart and found the same which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since they are owned by the same company. More tips, briefs and sections in the new version, more and longer stories back in the early 90s. I looked at other periodicals, Runners World had tips, tricks, tactics and a couple meaty stories. Sports Illustrated the same; American Angler, Fish Alaska, Alaska all of them with journalistic prose pinched by short tidbits and sedated by pharmaceutical ads. It’s the recipe for the modern magazine.

So what does this tell us?

I walked around the kitchen after pouring cup number three and decided the most penetrating observation wasn’t a statistic, but rather that I was suffering from salmon withdrawal because there I was muddling in a research project that I would never be able to fully finish before my deadline no matter how much coffee I ingested.

These publications have dynamic staffs that meet the needs of an audience that is largely bent on digitalizing their lives, so the ad to copy ratio does not bother me a bit. The fishing and hunting tactics complete with diagrams and illustrations are logical, accessible and useful but is the format of the modern magazine a result that as a country we just don’t read much and require short bits of information before we lose interest and flutter on to something else?

After 20 pages of half-page insight and briefs who makes it through the entire feature story, and of those who do, who appreciates the writing as much as the story itself?

I asked my college journalism professor who is the author of several books, he said the average reader today is too distracted to sit and devour longer pieces and as a result fewer and fewer books are being sold.

“They want to get their information and get out.”

Last cup: Of course this is completely coffee-induced, not a scientific study and has very little bearing on the overall well-being of earth, but it does make me want to read even more, if only to keep people with masters degrees in marketing convinced there is an audience for well-written printed copy to accompany tricks and stats of the sporting world.

To contact Jeff Lund, e-mail aklund21@gmail.com.

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