BOB GARFIELD: Generally speaking the editors at, say, Newsweek don't have a problem coming up with story ideas. They look back a week and re-hash the news. If that doesn't suggest a cover story, they can always explain all world religion or terrorism or Brittany Spears! But some editors haven't the luxury afforded by random events -- golfing, hunting, karate, beauty, fitness -- specialty publications not news-driven have to generate stories relying solely on their own editorial imaginations while basically covering the same material again and again and again.
WOMAN: I was thinking obviously our average reader doesn't a trainer [...?...]--
WOMAN: -- but if we could do some kind of comparison where we have three women or four women start a 6-week regimen--
WOMAN: [...?...] we're doing, Anne.
WOMAN: -- where everyone -- are we doing that, [...?...]?
WOMAN: We're trying to do it; it's sort of--
BOB GARFIELD: This is the story meeting at Fitness, the Women's Magazine of Body, Mind and Spirit, and things are a little tense. Every story suggested seems so been-done-already.
WOMAN: There's something there but I don't think we nailed it. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: What if we don't throw diet into the mix and say, you know, maybe they all want to lose-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: Like different tactics?
WOMAN: -- 20 pounds or something [...?...] and one [...?...] tries diet alone-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: But [...?...]--
WOMAN: -- and one person tries exercise alone, and then another person has both.
WOMAN: But we tell people all the time that you need both. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: One by one the staffers pitch ideas, and one by one, gently, editor in chief Emily Listfield shoots them down, but in time the magazine will be filled, because Listfield explains, it's just a question of tuning in to the readers.
EMILY LISTFIELD: It's just listening to women talk! And when you listen to women talk you get a million ideas. There's something new every day that they're curious about.
BOB GARFIELD:The problem is that curiosity is limited to very few spheres of human existence. For instance in the June issue the cover boasted a 30 minute thigh-sculpting workout whereas in May it was a Better Butt in 10 Minutes and in July it was The Breakthrough Workout to Burn Fat All Day Long. Fitness, of course, is for women. A men's health magazine has concerns far different from feminine body obsession. Steve Perrine is the editorial creative director of Men's Health.
STEVE PERRINE: Women tend to be self-conscious about their thighs and their butts and men tend to be self-conscious about their stomachs.
BOB GARFIELD: So hence in July the Fasted Ab Plan Ever. In June you had a story: Ten Greatest Ab Exercises Ever. May, All Star Abs. October Find Your Abs; September Machine-Built Abs. Lot of abs stories!
STEVE PERRINE: Well some of those stories are part of plans that we put together which guys can follow month to month. Others are very particular interesting takes. For example, the All Star Abs-- what we did is we picked a bunch of athletes and celebrities who are in particularly great shape, and we had them give us their workouts.
BOB GARFIELD:Celebrity Abs! Nice touch! Both editors insist their magazines offer fresh takes on the kinds of issues most important to their readers. In fact, according to Jon Fine, my Advertising Age colleague on the magazine beat, readers may want nothing more from their glossies than a game effort to wrap familiar material in new packages, because whether the category is beauty or fitness or golf, these magazines tend to be feeding fantasies in the first place.
JON FINE: There's always the hope that in 6 months, you know, you're gonna, you know, golf a 72. I mean there's always the hope that in 6 months, you know, you're going to drop 20 pounds and you know put on 15 pounds of lean body weight. But I mean if you're looking at it really obsessively there's an infinite amount of variation; there's an infinite amount of ways you can talk about it. I mean if you think about any real dedicated hobbyist, I mean they sound like they're repeating themselves a lot, and you know maybe they are; maybe there's a certain comfort in doing that. There's a sense of like returning to something that's important to them; it becomes, I don't know, like a song that you listen to over and over again.
BOB GARFIELD: Or maybe in its endless superficial variation on theme, like pornography. Or maybe another vice all together.
JOHN ATWOOD:To me, instruction editorial is the heroin of golf magazines. It may make you feel good for a moment, but it really kills creativity in the publication I think.
BOB GARFIELD:John Atwood is editor in chief of Travel and Leisure Golf, a magazine that prides itself on transcending the Five Tips for Mastering the Sand Wedge sort of material that fills its competition month after month. We visited his editorial meeting too and found a magazine with content bounded only by the limitations of its travel budget.
JOHN ATWOOD: I got a query from a guy -- what the hell was the story? -- Ireland! On our, one of our trips last year we used the services of a helicopter company and that seems to be becoming the preferred mode of transportation around Ireland, so you know given who our audience is, I think we need to do something on that topic.
BOB GARFIELD:The Irish helicopter tour was such a fetching subject in fact that Travel and Leisure Golf had done it already!-- in the current issue. No problem for coming issues though. There are many other countries and several other modes of transportation! Editors such as Atwood have one sort of challenge: interesting essentially the same audience month after month. Diane Forden of Bridal Guide magazine has the opposite problem. Interesting an ever-changing pool of readers without boring herself right out of her skull. Her readership turns over ever 6 to 14 months.
DIANE FORDEN: So that's the creative challenge when --especially when you work for a bridal magazine is: how do we keep this material fresh? How do we keep it relevant? How do we, you know, get the reader excited; keep ourselves excited?
BOB GARFIELD:But every month she had to do a wedding gown story and every month she had to do a wedding planning story, and every month she has to do a cake story.
DIANE FORDEN: We don't want to photograph the same type of cake story. I think once we did a Cake for All Seasons, so it was different wedding cakes for your seasons. We didn't want to repeat that, but we still wanted to present an idea of showing wonderful wedding cakes but what was our theme - what was our idea? You know, we repeat ourself, yes, but we always give it a new twist, a new angle.
BOB GARFIELD:It's all about angles. At the fitness magazine meeting, one editor proposed a very unexpected piece for a publication focusing on positive self-image. It was about a clinically depressed cheerleading coach, and that story may well be assigned, too, provided they can stay in tune with their readers and come up with, you know, an upbeat angle. The editorial process at these magazines is about ten percent journalism and ninety percent geometry.
WOMAN: Everybody's always doing Look Great Naked. I really like the idea of Feel Great Naked. 50 Reasons to Love Your Body.
BOB GARFIELD: Fifty Reasons to Love Your Body! Splendid idea! Next month? Fifty-One Reasons to Love Your Body. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by George Edwards and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sean Landis, Kathleen Horan and Horacio Nigro.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.