What is Magazine Journalism? By Nichola Meyer

Read between the lines of a magazine article, and you will see that magazine writing is not solely factual – although it is based on hard fact. It is not personal opinion, although a hint of an opinion is allowed. It is not fiction, although elements of fiction writing are often used. It is also not meant to be a moral essay, although in places, a magazine piece may provide social commentary.If this sounds like a bit of a riddle to you, here's another way of defining magazine journalism.Magazine writing lies between a work of fiction and hard news reporting. The magazine article can have all the entertainment value of fiction, using plot, scenes, characters and description. At the same time, the magazine journalist presents interesting, topical information – hard facts gained from research and interviews.

Also known as creative non-fiction, some believe magazine writing to be the highest form of journalism.

To illustrate, here is an excerpt of typical magazine writing:
Are Cell Masts Making You Sick?
By Biddi Rorke, Femina, September 2006.

When Elizabeth Forbes* moved into her beautiful Randburg home more than 10 years ago, she imagined sharing a blissful life with her husband in their semi-rural retreat. The reality is somewhat different.
When a cellphone operator erected a base station just 250 metres from the Forbes’ front door a few years ago, Elizabeth started experiencing a host of physical complaints – and she is convinced that they are related to the radio frequency waves emitted by the unsightly cellphone mast. “I’ve lost almost 12 kg, I feel a constant burning sensation in my limbs and excruciating pain in my muscles,” she says….

Although doctors have been unable to offer a specific reason for Elizabeth’s deterioration in health, the 53-year-old is adamant that she is sensitive to the electromagnetic field around her home. “Whenever I am away from my house, I feel better instantly. Just 15 minutes back in my lounge can drain me of all my colour,” she says….

Elizabeth is not the only person to blame her extraordinary symptoms on the presence of a cellphone mast.

In a recent Special Assignment programme, directed by Jessica Pitchford, electronic technician Meyndert Bornman from Westdene, Johannesburg, told how he and his wife, Renée, turned a “strange shade of blue” after a low cellphone mast was erected in their area. The couple and their daughter, Corné, complain of constantly feeling tired and aggressive and of developing highly sensitive teeth. In addition, their once chilly home started getting substantially warmer, particularly the rooms facing the mast. Renée claims that “it became so hot in our bedroom that I couldn’t sleep under a blanket in the middle of winter. There was simply no sign of the cold any more. I am sure that it was radiation coming into our bedroom.”
Making the headlines
Cellphone companies say that the thousands of base stations (Vodacom has 6000, MTN 4735, and Cell C more than 2100 sites nationally) springing up all over the country are perfectly harmless. But an increasing number of international reports are suggesting otherwise….

Let’s analyse the key elements of this writing.

1. Elements of story-telling

Like fiction (i.e. the novel), magazine writing has an element of entertainment. The magazine writer strives to “show” scenes rather than merely telling the reader the facts. How? By describing people, places or issues.

Scenes created often have dramatic sensory appeal and atmosphere, seducing the reader into finishing the story.

Like fiction writers use characters in their novels, magazine writers use stories from real people (called case studies), as well as dialogue.

2. Detail and Description

Feature writing mimics the novel in that it pays close attention to detail that would be considered unnecessary and inappropriate in newspaper journalism.

Details draw the reader in; generalizations keep them out. Yet, the details included are relevant, entertaining, to the point, and written in the short sentences that epitomise most good journalism.

For example, see the underlined descriptive phrases in this sentence out of the excerpt above, something you would not see in a front-page news report:

When Elizabeth Forbes* moved into her beautiful Randburg home more than 10 years ago, she imagined sharing a blissful life with her husband in their semi-rural retreat. The reality is somewhat different.

3. Facts and Opinion

Newspaper reporting handles hard facts rather than the writer’s opinion. Fiction is just that – pure storytelling from the author’s point of view. Magazine writing, however, tends to present both fact and a little of the writer’s opinion.

This does not mean that magazine writers suck the content for their articles out of their thumb. Everything they write must be gathered from interviews and research.

What we mean by “opinion” is that in most articles, you could glean the writer’s opinion on their subject by paying careful attention to the structure of their argument, and tone of the piece.

In all magazine writing, the writer must strive to present facts that are correct, and an opinion that is balanced and informed.

4. Based on a strong angle

An angle is the very specific subject of the article.

For example:
•10 Things Your Doctor Wished You Knew
•Extreme Sports – Extreme Lives
•Revamp your life: Why life coaches work!

The angle, which may be controversial, edgy or sensational, provides the focus of a magazine article. Every line of the magazine article must be congruent with this angle.

5. Is structured like an argument

Feature writing uses quotations to support or dramatically oppose the argument underlying the piece. Not just experts or authorities are interviewed, but personal stories and unusual, offbeat personalities are frequently cited.

So in the piece, “Are Cell Masts Making You Sick?”, Rorke is giving you the facts, and asking you to make an educated choice on the matter.

6. Makes use of literary devices

Magazine writing makes use of all the literary devices common to fiction writing, including rhetorical questions, metaphors, similes, and bathos. These would be inappropriate in hard news journalism.

7. Has a relatively slow pace

Unlike news articles that provide the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when and why) and H (how) in the first paragraph, the opening in a feature often withholds this information for later, first hooking the reader with story-telling, and then producing the hard facts later.

Generally, each paragraph presents one or two hard facts, whereas in newspaper writing you have up to four or five facts per paragraph.

8. Can be told from a personal viewpoint

The point of view taken may be personal, whereas in news reporting, this would be inappropriate. News reporting is almost always in the Third Person, e.g. He said…; She said…. In Magazine writing, the use of First Person, “I”, is sometimes appropriate, particularly in humour columns. Remember though, that social rants, or opinions on, for example, crime in SA, if they are not funny or satirical, belong in a newspaper “Letter to the editor”.

9. More informal, even colloquial style

News reporting makes use of a writing style that could be described as factual, formal and crisp. Magazine writing on the other hand may be informal, personal, even colloquial. For instance, slang and colloquial expressions are common in this genre. However, the style of writing remains plain and accessible, rather than the poetic, meandering writing that the novelist may indulge in.

10. Wide range of tones

Tone refers to the emotional feel underlying an article.

In news reporting, most articles have a serious, neutral tone. This is very different from the tone of a magazine piece. Here the tone could be humorous, questioning, persuasive, irreverent, sarcastic, sentimental, heart-warming, or informative.

11. May be controversial

Whereas news reports present factual coverage of events, the writer of magazine articles is encouraged to be original, creative and edgy. Anything goes, depending on the type of article the magazine is interested in publishing.

12. Uses jargon

Magazine articles often include jargon pertaining to the subject, where jargon refers to terms that are specific to the subject matter. For instance, an article about trans fatty acids would use “jargon” like “molecular structure”, “hydrogenated vegetable fats”, “cholesterol”, among others.

13. Plays with perspective

One way of analysing magazine articles is to see the piece as a camera lens. The writer might start by describing a fine detail (a personal experience or perspective, a specific moment in the narrative), then open up the lens to take in the wide view (the general/global backdrop), then close the piece by narrowing back to the fine detail. Or the writer could go the other way: starting with the wide view, focusing in, then opening up to the wide view again.

14. Runs like a movie

Many magazine articles, like the work of fiction, unfold like a movie with characters, plot, dialogue, climax and a sharp ending. The magazine piece often first works to establish setting and character, and then, once the reader is hooked, introduces the facts.

© Nichola Meyer, 2007

Nichola Meyer is the principal of the International Writers' College.
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