Christian Heilmann

One reason why a lot of web design magazine articles just don\’t deliver

Thursday, May 31st, 2007 at 4:46 am

Update: This post was discussed in the latest .net magazine podcast and there are some updates to this available in this post.

As those of you who follow the ol’ ink on dead tree technology channels know I am writing articles for paper magazines from time to time. I’ve done this less and less lately, not because of lack of offers but because of the format you have to deliver articles in.

Print magazines are an amazingly bad media for delivering technology articles because of the following reasons:

  • A working example of a web technology tells a lot more than a description of what it should do (admit it – you always click the “see it in action” link on web zines before reading the article)
  • Code examples take up a lot of space
  • Screen shots with legible text take up a lot of space

Space in a magazine is limited, first of all because of the format (no scrollbars) but also because space not used for advertising means no money coming in. Furthermore, code that spans several pages is as much a no-no in magazines as it is in books.

Together with short deadlines – after all the mag needs to be up-to-date and almost as quick as information you can read online – leads to articles being rushed and cut down to the shortest possible form. There are good reasons for this: in order to gain the trust of readers and deliver a magazine quickly and steadily you have to stick to a fixed format for certain articles. Readers who get every issue of the magazine can easily identify what this article will be and skip it or look forward to it based on this decision. However, this leads to ridiculous restrictions like:

  • Main article should be 300 words followed by 2 screen shots with 20 words caption each.
  • Three parts, 50 words each with a headline of up to 8 words each
  • 200 Words, then a screenshot with a caption of 10 words and a “find out more” of 100 words

These restrictions makes it pretty tough to get your message across as the format of the article should vary with the content. Many a time you’d only need one screenshot and use 400 words, or 50 words and 3 screenshots. Sometimes there is no need for any screenshot at all.

As there is no flexibility in these matters you end up having to cut down your articles to something that vaguely makes sense, or, if you are even less lucky, some editor will do it for you. It is the same problem with web sites that allow only for a certain amount of content inside different sections before breaking – they are simply a bad idea.

The question is what to do about this? The answer is either changing the format or the content. Maybe it is a good plan to back up a paper article with a URL or a demo on the CD that comes with every magazine (which is normally crammed with outdated shareware you don’t need anyways). Maybe a magazine should not try to simulate web zines or blog posts but go deeper, get more thoroughly researched and talk about the rationale of a technology, not about the implementation.

Implementations are always prone to errors, and there is no place better to get comments to and how to fix them than on the web. Most of the time the logic and rationale of the technology doesn’t change, but the technical part of it does. Let paper be more thorough than the web and the web for what it is good for – quick response times. You could even sell ads on the web page accompanying the article.

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