Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The new Maclean's

The only people Maclean's has to please are a) its current readers, b) its potential new readers and c) the national agencies and advertisers. The only way we'll know if it has achieved liftoff with a), b) and c) is when hard, objective results come in the form of audited circulation numbers and ad page counts. It's redesign (the way it reads and the way it looks) released to the public yesterday and being unveiled to a gala evening tonight, is the principal tool by which a), b) and c) are to be won over. And that is not a sure thing.

My first copy of the new magazine was thrust in my hands about 4 p.m. Monday on Wellington Street in Toronto by a very nice young woman (who was giving it to everyone she met; presumably similar young women were doing the same all over the downtown). The issue has 84 pages with about 25 pages of revenue ads (plus a bunch of the usual Rogers house ads and PSAs), a paid ratio of 30%.

The new cover has web-pagish elements, principally the series of "sky boxes" above the unchanged logo, with page numbers. Nicely kinetic and likely to get people to turn inside. Once there...
  • Not surprisingly (if only as a marketing ploy), it leads with a blockbuster cover story, about being able to buy the Privacy Commissioner's phone records over the Internet. The story inside is something of a letdown, however. It simply thunders about the practice and then shrugs when it comes to doing anything about it.
  • Clearly, it has been decided that white space is old hat, because there ain't none. The magazine is crammed from head to foot with type and (mostly) tiny pictures, with lots of web-ish and tab-ish slashes, call-outs, strips and stripes.
  • Columns, look and feel quite tight, at two columns. Each head shot is highlighted in a cute li'l red box. The only exception is Paul Wells's lead column which is a full page after the letters pages.
  • The new upfront section 7 days runs for three pages of one paragraph items; the first of the three pages sub-divided into "Good News" and "Bad News", which is kinda fun, if perhaps hard to sustain
  • The Q & A interview, to be conducted in alternative weeks by Editor-in-Chief Ken Whyte and Columnist Linda Frum, doesn't quite work because I went right past it. It starts on a left hand page and looks like a turn page. I flipped back to see where the interview started.
  • The feature story has got so much going on visually that it's a bit distracting. The Privacy Commissioner must have refused to have her picture taken, else why would they take two dozen grab shots to make her appear furtive. After all, the story was about the irony of shadowy bad guys who stole and sold her data, not that a public official who submitted to an interview was being uncooperative about a picture.
  • The magazine is nicely flagged, with National, World and so on.
  • The "Newsmakers" innovation provides lots of gossipy items, with pics keyed to the items. No heavy lifting for readers.
  • Bylines are tucked into the first paragraph of each story; a nice touch.
  • The Back Pages is the runaway success of the new look, giving more of the lifestyle and glamour quotient that Maclean's has always struggled to achieve. It leads with a piece on glam actor slash producer George Clooney, and has an interesting mix of smaller features and columns, including the eternal Bestseller list and a contribution by Scott Feschuk which was actually very funny. Plus a "Recommended" miscellancy about movies, books, discs and so on.
  • The little, light "basements" at the bottom of most features are amusing and a nice brightener. Quoting from American talk show hosts (to take one example) is not particularly innovative, though. The New York Times has been there, done that.
  • One of the Back Page items, a story about Jason Logan's new book, inexplicably fails to identify him as being on Maclean's' masthead, referring to him as "an art director and freelance illustrator". If you're going to plump for one of your own, at least be upfront about it.
  • As reported earlier, the last editorial page is now something called The End, which was an obituary. I read it. I still don't get it.
Ken Whyte was quoted as saying that the magazine's new look has adapted elements of the old Playboy. Other than running several pictures atop the interview, there is no evidence of the kind of elegant, airy design that magazine had in its heyday. There is lots of homage, however, to US magazine and OK and some trashy tabloidish touches imported from celebrity titles and British glam books.

Over all, the magazine has a good, strong Canadian feel. Politics got short shrift in this particular issue, though it's impossible to say whether that's simply the nature of the week. (It consisted of one, good story by John Geddes exploring how the opposition parties will choose to tear each other to shreds in the imminent election). Including the 4-page cover feature, there are 8 pages of national coverage out of 54, not a very high count for the "core" of the magazine (to use Whyte's term).

Maclean's staffers have been notoriously thin-skinned about comment on what they do: furious when nobody pays any attention; equally cheesed off when somebody notices and criticizes. The proof of the magazine's success with its readers and advertisers will lie in measurement, not commentary. But if you don't want people to comment on your magazine, don't hand it out on streetcorners.


Blogger D. B. Scott said...

A postscript: Out of Monday's Globe and Mail fell a freestanding insert for Maclean's, trumpeting and partly showing its new look and promoting many of its writers and features. Curiously, the copy still promoted the back page column of Paul Wells, which suggests that the shift of Wells upfront and the creation of The End in its place was a recent development (or nobody told the circulation department).

1:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not like it.
After 20 odd years of being a subscriber, I will let my subscription lapse.

12:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While attempting a bold new look for a well-established magazine is commendable, the outcome is nonetheless catastrophic. With readers of all ages constructively criticizing the new look, I have to question – as a 25 year old graduate student – who exactly is your target demographic?

I find the new design visually and intellectually insulting. More importantly, my plan to give subscriptions to family and friends for the holidays has been foiled.

An ultimatum: the new look or me – one of us has to go.

4:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new look? What are you trying to acheive here? I find the layout a bit confusing, much too cramped and the typeface hard to read. This does nothing for failing eyesight! Give your articles a little space so we can see where one ends and the other begins. It's like listening to a cheaply produced CD that tries to cram 25 songs onto a disk that should only hold 12.

11:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been buying Maclean's sporadically on the newsstands for the past few years and finally decided to subscribe. Imagine my horror when 1 week after receiving the content-heavy, but beautifully readable and accessible university review issue, I receive the "redesigned" abomination! This "new" Maclean's tells me they have no real content, so they're simply going to scream at the reader on every page, which means nothing stands out and nothing gets read. Good design is all about giving the reader access portals on the page: you can skim photos (that tell a story themselves), you can read headlines and intro quotes; you can dive into the text; or you can start with the sidebars. Previous art director Donna Braggins was masterful with the previous layout and had elevated the publication and its content to a level that made me as a Canadian designer proud — as well as making me want to read every page. Sadly, I have cancelled my new subscription.

3:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely a step in the wrong direction. There may not be a Canadian equivalent to the National Enquirer, but Maclean's does not have to be that.
If this has not run it's course when my subscription runs out, I will not renew.

3:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked the old Macleans. Why did you have to change it to a sleazy tabloid? I won't be reading it any more.

6:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the majority of the writers; the new Maclean's is more difficult to read and has a sleazy, trashy appearance to it. The basements at the bottom of the page are distracting and should be confined to the basement.

I older format was perfectly acceptable as far as I am concerned.

I will be cancelling my subscription in the new year.

5:22 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will not be renewing. This is too hard to read. Not relaxing at all.

1:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having already emailed my opinion of your new layout, I will just add: I don't like it and hope you will change back to the old format. I still have not read the new issue front to back like I previously did.

3:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can only echo the sentiments of the people above. With this redesign, you have turned a classy informative and easy to read news magazine into a cluttered, trashy rag. Even the paper feels cheap!

For many years, I have looked forward to the day when Maclean's arrived in my mailbox. It provided me with in depth background to news stories with a Canadian slant and well informed opinions and editorials. When I lived in the states, it was my link to reality, civilization and the outside world.

In my opinion, Macleans reached it's zenith under Anthony Wilson-Smith when I literaly read each magazine from cover to cover. Now I find the new format so distracting, trashy and visually unappealling that I have a hard time judging whether the quality of the articles has been maintained.

If things don't improve by the time my subscription expires, I won't renew it.

7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After three weeks of trying to make sense of the new graphic layout of Macleans (and patiently hoping that it was just an off-season april fools prank) I have given up and cancelled my subscription.

It should be noted, though, that graphic layout is not entirely to blame. While the hap-hazard mixing of fonts (I counted as many as 6 on standard page layouts), the death of white space, tabloid appearance and general disarray have all had their toll on the legibility of the magazine; content (or death thereof) also contributed to the decision. I used to enjoy Macleans' way of providing the news without getting caught up in the sensationalism and reactionary journalism that plague all to many sources. Macleans captured my news interest for its critical and and well thought out essays. These, unfortunately, have become increasingly far apart and the magazine has recently seemed to rely more on stuffing the space between its covers with 'fluff'.

Like Dave Hayes has questioned, what market is Macleans trying to reach? As a 26 year old professional, I would have assumed that Macleans had some interest in me reading there magazine, but now I'm am at a loss as to who they are after.

In my post-Macleans existence I will miss Paul Wells . . . too bad. (as I lamented the departure of Fotheringham a couple years back)

10:29 pm  
Blogger D. B. Scott said...

Please note: some commenters seem to be under the mistaken impression that this site is somehow published by Maclean's, using the second person plural pronoun "you" to tell us of their dissatisfaction. This blog is wholly independent and neither seeks nor gets permission from Rogers Media, for anything. While we will print further constructive criticisms of the redesign, we will no longer publish comments that would better be directed to the editor and publisher of Maclean's or messages that are simply copied to the blog. If you want to send a message about cancelling your subscription, I suggest you do so where they will do the most good -- to the magazine itself.

7:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like change but I have to agree with the above posters. The new layout looks trashy and cluttered. It seems like Macleans going for a tabloid look and feel. I won’t bother renewing.

4:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The new look has only one positive change: the maple leaf apostrophe on the cover. Maybe it’s because I’m over 60 and am somewhat resistant to change and a bit hard-of-seeing, but when I get a good thing, I like to keep it. Like your previous overall design.

The new look is definitely a total revamp from the past, but the changes that stand out are all negative. The cover is too busy and cluttered; the type face is too small [it can’t be any bigger than 10-point]; I see cramped aligning of columns which build tension in a reader who seeks to relax; it was wrong to drag Paul Wells from his comfortable and amusing pew on The Back Page to somewhere non-descript, like page 10; and the composite pages resemble a grab-bag of snapshots and news clips.

If I didn’t know better, I'd have assumed that you used The National Enquirer or The Star as a model.

Let’s all sing, “Get back, get back, back to where you once belonged.”

John Roberts [age 63]

884 Lakes Blvd.

Parksville, BC

V9P 2P8


7:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't like the new look much, too tabloid supermarket checkout looking. However, I am too much of a fan to every stop reading it. I think Macleans is lucky there are many people like myself out there !

9:12 am  
Blogger Tony G said...


I feel hurried and pressured reading the magazine: bombarded by too much print, to many tiny images, and too much "flash" trying to sell me. But the point it, I already bought the magazine! Like bad webpage design, the new look tries to fill up the space, and consequently the layout doesn't actually highlight what's worth reading. The major articles, which I would like to read now has really small print, and I get tired with the distractions. I don’t like the neon blasts and little banners and flags. The look is trashy. I have yet to completely read a single article in the new format. I am among those who will let their subscription lapse. I am only bothering to write this because at dinner this evening, my children- 3 teens who usually read MacLean’s - also said they’ve given up on it.

8:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do not like the new look either. The font is too small and the pages overstuffed ... it hurts the head trying to figure out where to focus. I love that there's more content but I can't relax over a cup of coffee on a lazy Sunday morning to read those articles. For me, that's the key ... to sit and relax with the latest issue of Maclean's ... catching up on some latest issues with articles that had depth and insight. News delivery has changed alot since the "1920s" ... so why go back to that era? Quick delivery of news works well on your web site (which has nice large fonts!) but the magazine should focus on articles and such that allow us to reflect and think. And why copy other magazines like US and People anyway? If I want that then I'll read People and US. And what's with the "Apostroleaf" gimmick? Should that be the reason for us to buy Maclean's? Increase the content, yes, but bring please back some user friendliness!

11:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...a lot of cranky people don't like the new Macleans. It's not that bad everybody. In fact, at times, it's quite refreshing. Let's all just take a step back and relax for a moment and let the professionals do their work.

2:45 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read the posted criticisms of Maclean's -- I agree with them all. I've been a Maclean's subscriber for many years and am planning to terminate my subscription. My guess is that Kenneth White has been called in as a "hatchet-man" to close down this once fine magazine (a tax write-off perhaps?) What happened to Saturday Night? Helen Kiperchuk

2:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband and I will also be letting our subscription run out and we'll not be renewing it. Your editor should perhaps study the demographics a little more. Boomers are retiring, in huge numbers, and are generally well-educated. They should be your focus group. This new format should appeal to teeny-boppers and people who have short attention spans. Good luck and it's back to the Economist for us for meaty articles.

The Barrs
Bowen Island, B.C.

3:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so disappointed in the "new" Macleans that I decided to tell them so...then spotted this icon on their website...I have just finished reading the many personal comments and agree with the nay majority (I note there are only a couple of supporters to the new format). After having been a subscriber for more years than I can remember, I too am seriously considering cancelling my subscription unless Macleans cleans up its act. At the moment, I consider it to be mostly a trashy tabloid and find it too difficult to find meaningful articles worth reading, and once I do, it is difficult reading as noted by in many of the above comments from other readers. Unless Macleans heeds the feedback, I too will be cancelling my subscription which runs out in July.

--an Edmonton Macleans subscriber

12:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a young Maclean's reader, I cannot remember "the good ol' days" of the magazine that so many of the above posts refer to. I can say however that I for one am not apposed to the changes made in the magazine's format. Being used to the "trashy and flashy" articles found on the internet and in gossip mags, I actually find this arraignment quite well organized and attractively laid out. I think part of what many of us must come to terms with as readers is that Maclean's is not strictly news. It's a mostly factual opinion magazine. And it is arrainged as such. If you want just news The Globe and Mail would be a much better choice. The other aspect is that you base long term commitments on looks alone, you might as well ditch your life long partner of thirty years, because lets face it- they don't look as appealing as they used to. Looks will change inevitably, but as long as its still the same good content, that's fine with me. Eventually everyone will get over the appearance.

Young reader,
Central Ontario

4:54 pm  

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