Newspaper vs. Magazine: Which Kind of Writer are You?

by Carolyn Burch
The Internet Writing Journal, October-November 2001

On the long, long path to becoming famous, the history books reflect that most illustrious authors and writers started out writing for one or both of these venues in the early parts of their careers. One of the reasons for this is because both venues are almost always hiring, and because most people do make a good living at journalism. Futhermore, it is fairly easy to break into these careers. Both newspapers and magazines provide an unparalleled education in the business of writing.

Another perk is that mentors can be easily found at these types of jobs. You will also find a host of other newcomers from all walks of life with whom you can often find lifelong friendships and moral support from animals of your own kind, which sometimes can be worth it in and of itself.

That said however, there are some fundamental differences between the two kinds of writing, and if you're like me and think you can do both, there are a few things you should know.

In The Big Leagues: Magazine Writing

We've all heard of the style guide from the Associated Press and the general rules of Who, What, When, Why, Where, and How. But there's a lot more to it that that.

A newspaper is fundamentally different from a magazine in content and style, because of the way in which it is produced and who it is produced for. Because people who subscribe to magazines usually are on a break, or plan on spending some time reading the magazine at their leisure, (therefore, having plenty of time to browse) an article can be longer than it ordinarily would be in a newspaper. Also, magazines as a general rule are more advertiser-driven than newspapers, so content in larger magazines is often very carefully checked against guidelines from those advertisers. For instance, a friend of mine who works at a major women's magazine tells me that there is a fifteen-page guidelines list for all articles that are placed opposite full-page ads for any General Foods products. Part of the reason for this is that people often associate what they read with an ad they see near the piece. It is a form of neural association, and is not terribly unlike the way in which you probably recall exactly what you were doing on September 11th when you heard about the terrorist attacks.

Our minds just naturally attach and group objects and associations together. Advertising giants know this and because magazines are inclined to listen to their biggest clients, they also have the moxy to get their ads placed exactly in proper alignment with stories and articles they want to have associated with their products.

Catchy Headlines vs. Baseline Concept

Newspapers are slightly different in this regard. Newspapers are driven more by readership than by advertisers.

Newspaper editors tend to print articles that are controversial and would loath to have an advertiser, no matter how large, tell them what they can and can't run in their paper. However, people who read a newspaper do not have the time allotment for reading that magazine readers do, and newspapers are made to be very disposable, so articles are shorter, have more punch, and get to the point quicker. They focus more on catchy headlines than on baseline concept, in an effort to capture the reader's interest and get him to read the entire story. Also, newspapers tend to have a myriad of writers all competing for the same reader's attention. They are usually specialists in certain areas like opinion and editorial, city editors, crisis reporters, or what's affectionately known as "fluff reporting" on items like home decor and parties, while magazines on the other hand tend to have small staffs of writers who wear all the hats: editing, writing, proofing, sometimes even doing some layout and photography. Many top magazines are run by one hundred or less staffers, while a newspaper, even a small weekly, will often have anywhere from several hundred on up to a thousand or more.

This is important to you as a writer, since the type of piece these two buy are diversely different in style approach, and content.

Selling the Freelance Piece

To write a freelance piece for a newspaper, you must come up with a catchy, quick piece on something that the everyday Joe will enjoy reading over a cup of morning coffee in a few minutes. To sell a similar piece to a magazine, you must give something unusual, different and informative in nature. A reader of a magazine is looking for an article which gives them a feeling that they have either learned something of value, or have connected in some way with the rest of the human race, or their country, or that they have at least gained value in the form of relaxation or entertainment. They want something special that will make them feel as if they have spent that relaxation time reading wisely. A reader of a newspaper, on the other hand, is more concerned with staying on top of current events and trends, and, since he is reading because he feels he needs to, he doesn't mind the controversial or occasional sad story. He needs to hear what's going on in his world, how to stay ahead of the game in his city, career, life, money, etc. And he expects not to agree with every piece of writing he reads. A magazine reader prefers to read writers who think like he does.

Of course, a Newsweek reader, for instance, may be widely different than a Women's Day reader. You have to use common sense and target your approach to the magazine in question and its own style. But, in general, most mainstream magazines are read at leisure, while newspapers are read purposefully, while the reader is in a bit of a hurry.

I recently read a statistic that most newspapers thrown into the driveway are only read 1/3 of the way through. Most magazines however, especially women's, parenting, mainstream, and trade, are kept for as long as a year by their subscribers and read and re-read cover to cover. Some, like those found in dental and medical offices and those kept in resort lobbies, are kept even longer. But even in a waiting room, a newspaper is always kept current.

Again, this is because a newspaper is like vegetables in your diet, and magazines are like the desert.

Just think about it: how many whole newspapers vs. magazines from 1999 do you have under your bed?

Pay Scale

Another major difference between the two venues is in the rates for pay. Although it may often be very competitive between the two as far as actual dollars paid to writers, the way these payments are calculated are entirely different. Magazines pay based on circulation, while newspapers generally pay based on a cumulative number derived from what the paper is making and what everyone else is making at the paper.

So, with magazines, it behooves you to find a large circulation magazine, whereas with a paper, circulation may not be terribly relevant to your own pay, if its readership is sufficient to generate enough regular readers.

Another way of thinking of it is in terms of balance. At a mainstream men's magazine, for instance, the balance of readers to paying advertisers may vary widely and be tipped in one or the other direction to a varying degree and still be a highly sought-after and profitable publication. This is because the averages that the bean counters have come up with as far as what each individual reader, (and also the amount of time that reader spends in the magazine) is worth to the advertisers. It can be unbalanced in effect because a magazine reader, especially of a specialty market like men's magazines, or radios, or medical equipment, is worth a lot. His feeling of satisfaction from reading the magazine will, we know, carry over into the ads he sees while reading it, and so he will buy more of that product. And, if he buys it even just once, marketing statistics show that he will at least 50% of the time, become a lifetime purchaser of many kinds of products he tries. And, to any retailer in the market today, that makes him worth at least his weight in gold. And the magazine ad sales reps, knowing this, charge precisely that.

To Have and To Hold

A newspaper has to hold the balance much more tightly. Newspapers must constantly be analyzing the demographics and watching their subscriptions closely for patterns of change and loss.

When a tremendous story breaks, often a paper will double or even triple its newsstand sales on that particular day, but since these things cannot be very well predicted in advance, most newspapers consider three or four of these windfalls each year a given, and don't count on any more than that as far as profitability goes. Their bread and butter lies in a steady number of subscribers, (though individual subscribers will fade in and out all the time and be replaced by new ones) and their value to their advertisers, which is considerably less than a magazine reader's value. A good scoop on the cover can be a great impetus to buy a paper on a whim, but for the most part, newspaper editors are trying to catch new readers while magazine editors are trying to hold the same ones all the time, preferably forever.

So, a newspaper's ideas must be interesting, catchy, and new and different, representative of many different views, whereas a magazine's need to be geared very much to the same reader in each issue: what a reader liked last week he will usually like again tomorrow. To use a food analogy, you could say that newspapers serve up a veritable smorgasbord, and magazines dish out bland, wholesome, homestyle meat and potatoes. Comfort food. Regularly.

The News About Newsstands

I have a friend in New York who is a third-generation newsstand owner on the South side. There is something vaguely familiar about a newsstand guy, not unlike the feeling you get from a good bartender. Even if you've never met him before, it's almost as if he knows you better than you know yourself. And best of all, knows when not to say so. But suffice to say that all those years in his business tell you a little something about what people read and why. When I asked him what he thought about the whole magazine vs. newspaper publishing end of the business, he told me that magazines are at the newsstand to catch new readers, while newspapers are there as a matter of convenience to the people who already subscribe and who left home without it.

And that pretty much sums up how you should write for them. Remember the old salesman's adage: if you only can figure out a person's motivations, you can sell them anything in the world.

A Punch List For Writers

Newspapers: Pieces of all sizes, but especially under 900 words

Magazines: 500-3500 words

Newspapers: Punchy, short informative,

Magazines: gratifying, longer

Newspapers: Extremely correct grammar and punctuation

Magazines: more relaxed grammar and punctuation

Newspaper: Style: anything goes

Magazines: Style: If they say read sample issues, they mean it. Even if they don't, they mean it, too.

Newspapers: Anything that is news

Magazines: Anything that makes you feel good, informed

Newspaper: Highly competitive

Magazines: Just say something old in a new way and you'll get it

**Carolyn Burch is a freelance writer for horse publications in several breeds, as well as for Human Resources, parenting, family, and home magazines. Her work has appeared in national and international magazines, newspapers and publications in a variety of different subject matters, ranging from racism in children, to medical understanding pieces, to general news and information and service pieces. Carolyn enjoys sewing and gardening, and breeding and riding her Arabian horses in the discipline of dressage. She lives in Arizona and California with her high-school sweetheart and their four children. She recently broke the one million circulation mark with a news story she wrote. You can reach Carolyn Burch at: cburch4hr@home.com. You can visit her website at: www.cornerstoneconsortium.com.


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