“Magazine” originally meant a storehouse for supplies — especially weapons and ammunition. So magazines held a variety of things in all shapes and sizes. For most people today, “magazine” means a periodic publication filled with — you guessed it — a variety of items in all shapes and sizes. Today, small is the new big.

In the past few years, publishers generally have increased the number of small things packaged in eye-catching layouts. Publishing wonks call this short-form writing; folks who remember what green eyeshades were for still think of these mini-items as blurbs, squibs, departments and fillers.
Magazine departments have long been home to short-form writing and usually appear in the same order in the magazine, forming a frame around the longer features. They also help set a tone for the magazine. What is new in departments is the emphasis on even more items and on packaging — design.
Two departments from two different magazines we publish illustrate this:

  • Whatnot: Named for a piece of furniture intended to display miscellaneous items, this section of American Spirit usually contains one or two short pieces such as travel or genealogy articles, as well as a quiz and a list of historic events. Bright photos and colors set off the text.
  • Upfront: This MyBusiness magazine department gives time-pressed small business owners real-life solutions to business issues, such as finding good employees or marketing on a tight budget. Tips are highlighted in red in a sidebar while a box directs them to resources for further study.

At the same time, those squibs, blurbs, etc. have also had extreme makeovers and are cropping up as sidebars, infographics and commentary throughout the magazine.
Whatever you call them, there’s a reason behind thinking small.

  • Variety: In a very different context, Shakespeare described the formula for the perfect magazine: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.” Short/form content allows editors and designers to add more variety to each issue; readers look forward to seeing what they’re going to do next time.
  • Keep it simple, short: Which are you more likely to recall, an item on the 4th page of a lengthy feature on American foreign policy or the pullquotes from the article?
  • The cocktail party rule: If you are trying to keep up with the daily info-flood, your pool of knowledge will probably be a mile wide and an inch deep. For all but the most near and dear subjects, that’s good enough for surviving a cocktail party or a cookout. It’s even good enough for Cliff at “Cheers”.