The Webzine Format: benefits for online publishing

A decade ago, the term webzine came into vogue simply to mean a web-based magazine. I’d like to breathe new life into it to describe an alternative format to the weblog for online publishing. Whereas the design fundamental of the weblog is the reverse-chronological format, the design fundamental of the webzine is separate departments based on the style of the writing. I’m going to describe here how this would be useful for online communities/publishers.

Departments serve a clear purpose in magazines (and newspapers as well, when they are used). They provide a consistent set of expectations for the reader– whether it’s the New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” or the Atlantic Monthly‘s “Primary Sources” or the New York Times Magazine‘s “The Ethicist,” or the Op-Ed pages, etc.. Slate has had two hundred named departments (I counted for my forthcoming article in Slate’s history), though through its formative years there were a reliable dozen or so which anchored the publication. The additional benefit to the publisher of using departments is to ensure a sense of a “balanced diet” for reader consumption. In a printed publication, the departments often show up at expected placements; online publishers often do such layouts on the front page.

This site has several departments, which I humbly titled “Story types” a year ago. I had coded it for the Drupal software and will be working on making that module generic. The layout of the front page is based on the departments: at top. At the top are quick one-line links; the rest of the page has capsules of links and content. (Incidentally, the New York Times does the opposite). Each area is named by its type.

A little history

As far as webzines go, there was never an agreed-upon format of what a webzine was (see this 1998 Wired News piece Webzine Publishers Grapple with Self-Definition), let alone a culture around it. This is where the marketing of blogs has triumphed. The weblog format remains enormously popular as there is a minimum of structure. The format itself was popularized in the late 1990s by sites such as Slashdot and Dave Winer’s Scripting News. By convention, a Slashdot showed an introductory excerpt and invited the user to click to read the rest of the piece as well as the community comments; Winer kept all the content of the post in the front page and excludes a comments section, and today all weblogs do something in between. The original presumption was that the posts were short and basically served as pointers (see Rebecca Blood’s weblogs: a history and perspective) This is still the popular conception: TIME Magazine, in giving out its first “blog of the year” award at the end of 2004, hailed “the rhythm and pace of a blog that feels intuitively right” and provided a metric of “20 seconds to read a typical blog post.”

This assumption has been stressed by the myriad of ways in which online writing has exploded; while professional writers like Andrew Sullivan relax in the 20-second rhythm, other writers who only publish online try to make their mark by putting longer forms of writing in. Those writers who have the most to gain by publishing online should be deeply invested in the form that their writings are published in.

The advantages

Here are four advantages of the webzine format:

1. the webzine format preserves stories on the front page.

“The weblog’s reverse-chronological arrangement ensures that everyone visiting the page will see the newest information because it is always on top,” Rebecca wrote in the Weblog Handbook (2002). But it’s not clear that the newest information is always the most important for all readers. The topmost article gets an outsized amount of attention, proportional to the size of the article (since it crowds out the next one) and to the length of time before the next one. The only way to keep a story up top is to “stuff” a story below by backdating it– as I saw happen recently by a blogger giving a link to a Civilities piece. By contrast, the webzine format gives publishers the confidence that high-profile stories will not be pushed off of the front page.

2. the webzine format can serve posts/articles of varying sizes.

There’s the schizophrenia over how to mix different sized posts. Rebecca Blood wrote in her 2000 history: “Indeed, the format of the typical weblog, providing only a very short space in which to write an entry, encourages pithiness on the part of the writer; longer commentary is often given its own space as a separate essay.” Incidentally, Rebecca’s essay is not within her blog, but under a separate section. She is technically adept enough to code her website to do that. But many users are stuck with blog software which doesn’t facilitate that at all. So there are artificial pressures against longer essays.

Meg Hournihan, in an article What We’re Doing When We Blog three years ago, wrote: “Freed from the constraints of the printed page (or any concept of “page”), an author can now blog a short thought that previously would have gone unwritten. The weblog’s post-unit liberates the writer from the word count.” (italics hers) But suppose that there was a maximum constraint. If a link and a quick thought could be had in 300 words, why not 30? That is the limit (255 characters, to be precise) of comments in the del.icio.us bookmarking service. Such a channel could be integrated within the webzine layout.

3. the webzine format can scale to handle a large volume of posts

The weblog format seems to work best with post a day– I am at best assuming here that most people choose to write once a day and also choose to read once a day. If there is more, the reader may get behind and simply stop reading it. I found Joshua Micah Marshall’s Talking Points Memo to be the most singularly brilliant of political blogs (after all, Marshall writes about politics for a living), but he posted so many trivialities about phoning individual congressional offices that I couldn’t keep up.

Last year I looked at a number of high-volume political/campaign/news blogs and found that they were much longer than conventional websites. Furthermore, the default setting of an inclusive log led to absurdly large pages; I discovered that The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog grew to 160 screenfuls (it is still being updated today, and is 1/8 the length) and half a megabyte, which seemed to me to be fairly hefty for anyone needing quick information about responding to the catastrophe. When I expressed this concern to one of the site’s creators, Dinah Mehta, three days after the site went up, she acknowledged that they had started migrating it to a wiki format (her reflections five months later echoes this as well).

By channeling different types of posts differently, a webzine could more easily scale so that users could check it once a day and not worry about missing anything.

4. the webzine format asserts the value of headlines

Fundamentally, one of the core tenets about blogging is that it is getting back to the “roots” of journalism, notably by getting around editors (see this quote from Jay Rosen). Of course, another thing editors are responsible for is headlines. The multi-column headline was invented in the 19th-century, and once it was, newspapers have not gone back (see The utility of headlined news, along with a scan of the Times front-page reporting the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, in the era in which it still limited headlines to one column).

There is, of course, a way to read blogs by skimming headlines– just about all blogs, and most traditional publications, offer an RSS syndication feed that summarizes articles. The few news organizations yet to adopt the technology are exhorted by the evangelists to do so, such as Simon Waldman of the UK Guardian at the World Editor’s Forum last month. But RSS’s power is enabling individual writers. High-volume publications are still able to better layout their headlines than through RSS.

The Webzine Revival

The format notwithstanding, blogs have triggered a renewed frenzy in online publishing. A growing number of people have been joining together in editorial publications and going “beyond blogs” by experimenting with the format. In fact, they all are assembled much more in line with the webzine format. Here are a few noteworthy publications with descriptions of their charters:

The Revealer (September 2003) — “A daily review of religion and the press,” A publication of NYU with blogger-academic Jay Rosen as its founder/publisher. 4 editors, 14 contributors, 3 designers.

Raw Story (February 2004) “A rational voice” and “an alternative news nexus” published by Raw Story Media; John Byrne, publisher, and editor-in-chief. 5 editors, 4 advisors, 7 columnists.

Personal Democracy Forum (October 2004) “Technology is changing politics.” Published by Andrew Rasiej and with Executive Editor Micah Sifry (Chris Nolan as an interim editor for the summer). 6 editors/staff:, 18 contributors.

Backfence (May 2005) — “Citizen’s journalism” website with separate sections serving the communities of McLean, VA and Reston, VA. No editors or assigned writers.

NOTE: I should add that the current Wikipedia definition of webzine emphasizes a periodic publication cycle and editorial process. Thus I clearly identified this as the webzine format.

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