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On the racks

Esquire Cares, Part II

02.26.08 | 1 Comment

Esquire Letters

Those of us who have kicked around publications for a while know that the letters page ain’t what it used to be.

And, I’m not just talking about what appears in the magazine—though most glossies are printing fewer inches of reader reaction than in years past. Readers (and more importantly readers who write) no longer have the same notion of what a letters page is in the first place.

In the old days, a mail page was one of a very few accessible forums. If you were the gatekeeper of one, you could count on all kinds of unpublishable entertainment—long paranoid screeds hand printed in tiny, careful letters on three (or 12) over-stuffed pages; amateur press packages from home entrepreneurs with uh, “whimsical” schemes; requests for pen pals from prisoners with hard luck stories—and other miscellany from folks desperate to gain access to an audience—any audience.

It really didn’t matter if you were at a college literary magazine or Newsweek—you could count on a steady stream of at once horrifying and amusing correspondence. And, as much as the crazier letters were passed around the newsroom and snickered at, it was also hard to be completely untouched by them. They spoke of lives much harder and more isolated than the ones we were living.

Of course, in addition to the crank stuff, the average magazine also received a lot more thoughtful submissions than they currently do. Why the drop off? One editor I talked to blames blogs. Everyone with something to say already has a blog or can find one on which they can comment. Audiences and communities are now found on Facebook, not the letters page. But, whatever the cause, the effect has snowballed. At my old newspaper, the letters page (not to mention the free ads in the back) used to generate conversations among readers that would go on for weeks. Mail no longer runs in every issue.

That sense of reader community that you found in print is all but gone at most publications.

So, one of the most interesting features of the recent Esquire redesign is the increased love and attention given to the letters page. And, they are honoring (if that’s the right word) both kinds of letter writers—engaged readers and whack jobs—with lots of inches for letters and a short feature that quotes “highlights from a letter we won’t be publishing this month”—a few words that hint at those not-ready-for primetime letters we all used to get, and apparently Esquire still does. “The Sound and the Fury” (possibly the best name for a letters page ever—though the new design downplays it) becomes visual through informational graphics reflecting quantity of mail on various topics (and reader reactions to various pieces) and mini featurelets that expand upon the previous month’s content. Instead of rehashing art from the previous month (though there’s a little of that) the visuals emerge from content. It’s all at least as engaging as the magazine’s newsbrief section a few pages later.

Esquire Letters 2

It’s all so well done, in fact, that it raised some question in my mind as to whether I was reading real reader-provided material or not. If not, Esquire certainly wouldn’t be the first magazine to “enhance” its letters page, but I’d like to believe that it’s possible to take the best of a magazine’s mailbag (and web forums) and turn it into something that would work this well in print.

Esquire Letters 3

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