The Ensign is an official magazine published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for English-speaking adults in North America. It comes out monthly and serves as an official organ for Church leaders as well a providing a variety of practically-minded and human-interest stories.
The Ensign underwent a major redesign a couple years ago, and the January issue pushes that design aesthetic a little further along. It wasn't until I took it out of the plastic today that I noticed the slight changes in the cover design and the interior, similarly, is more a progression in the previously chosen design direction rather than a new design entirely.
Essentially, the design is now slicker and more attractive. It's looking more and more like something a teenager might be interested in reading.
(Incidentally, I don't get The New Era [the Church's mag for teens] so I can't compare them, but The Friend [for kids] also underwent a design change this month. It's cover design is the most notable change. A brief glance-through didn't reveal any other changes.)
The changes to the cover are slight. Font refinements, the title is now transparent. It's nice. It's not killer. It won't be winning any awards, but I think we can assume that the Church magazines aren't trying to be hipper than thou, just hip enough. (I'm not commenting on the art because in the last few years, we've seen improvement in cover-art selections. This is an image most Mormons have seen many times, so it's a bit tired, but I'm choosing not to whine.)
(The story I'm about to tell you is hearsay, but my source is excellent. I may have a some of the details wrong, but I have full confidence in the gist of the story.)
Once upon a time, the Church paid a research company to find out how the members were using the magazines. One of the findings was that the Ensign is the most-subscribed-to-/-least-read magazine in America. Or, in other words, considering the size of its subscription, no one was actually reading the thing.
The editor made big plans to fix this problem but no one liked his plans and so they stuck with producing a boring magazine that no one actually read.
I heard this story in connection with fiction, but I can't remember now if the editor wanted to bring fiction back for this reason, or if taking fiction out was part of the seemingly deliberate attempt to make the magazine even more boring and less read.
(If you think it's boring, then you're obviously not worthy enough to read it anyway.)
Clearly, the magazine department now desperately wants people to read the magazine. As we will see.
They're also making a serious effort to bring people online. They offer mp3 readings from the magazine, it's available in forms easily accessed by handheld whatsits, etc. They've even finally got a web address you can easily type to get directly to the magazine's site: ensign.lds.org (although once you type it in, it switches to http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=a6246a008952b010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0 and the First Presidency Message is http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?hideNav=1&locale=0&sourceId=81be47a27a2b5210VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD, neither of which are particularly pleasant to link to).
The table of contents offers teasers (their word, see page eleven) to tell you more about an article before you waste all those calories turning to "Prophets of the Old Testament" only to discover it's just a buncha lousy pictures. (Incidentally, I am overall happy with the quality of art that's been appearing in the Ensign of late, though I was a bit disappointed with this set.)
The ToC also has a goodly amount of whitespace which I am always in favor of and which, for a table, I think is necessary for readability.
In all, the ToC is inviting. It's not something just to skip over, it's something to read. My favorite general-interest magazine, Wired, always has an engaging ToC and it often significantly alters the order in which I read things. The Ensign's teasers are a step in that direction, though they're still a bit hermetic at present.
But I suppose they sorta hafta be. Mormons don't fit a narrow demographic and they need to be as worried about pushing people away as drawing people in. Most magazines make inroads with their overall audience by being occasionally outrageous (Sarah Palin in shortshorts! Obama as jihadist!) --- this risks losing some subscribers, but their is the chance of gaining some as well. Being controversial is not a luxury the Ensign has however. Heaven forbid they should promote pipe-smoking. I would love to see them do it, but the closest they've come to controversy was the painstakingly anticontroversial take on Mountain Meadows.
Anyway. Let's move on by skipping to the end, with my favorite new feature.
As any magazine reader knows, it has become expected for the final page to be a standalone thing for readers to turn to first. It may be a cartoon or humor column, it may be an essay from someone famous, it may be a compelling personal experience. The Ensign is now doing this as well with a final-page department called "Until We Meet Again" --- "a brief personal essay offering spiritual insights.
I give this change high marks. I think it has a good chance of becoming a destination for people as they first open up their new Ensign. I think not having a General Authority write the first one was wise --- in fact, I think it's an opportunity to get great writing from outside the Church Office Building. I don't think the Church should get into celebrity culture, so probably Orson Scott Card or Donny Osmond would be a bad idea, but great writers and thinkiners like Angela Hallstrom or Mahonri Stewart or Gideon Burton? I would imagine that even knowing it's not an opportunity to plug their new project, even knowing that they'll need to be perfectly orthodox, even then, you could get a lot of Mormondom's best writers to participate. Sure, most Ensign readers won't know who Ardis Parshall is, but that doesn't mean that they can't appreciate a well-written essay. And who knows --- maybe they'll remember the name, or google it, and that's good for everyone. And unless the page said "Author of People of Paradox", the author's essay on thinking during the sacrament cannot reasonably be understood as Church-approval of the author's other work.
Also at the end of the book are various new departments, some of which are new and some of which have already been seen in the Liahona (the Church's non-English or non-NAmerican magazines, which combine the adult, teen and kid mags into one). These too will be quickly looked at, just as "Latter-day Saint Voices" long has been.
My favorite of this portion is "Small & Simple Things, which contains subdepartsments such as a temple spotlight.
But now we're running into a point where we need to consider possible unintended consequences.
Everything I've talked about so far is good and I like it. But can this streamlining and simplifying and shortening result in a dumbed down magazine? Of course it can. But is it?
Well. I'm not sure.
There seems to be an about par number of longer articles, but one of my problems with the Ensign is it's general shortage of high-interest articles for me. I like the historical articles and the deeper doctrinal delvings. Most of the articles are either too practical or too feelgoody for my taste. Which isn't to say they are awful and I hate them, but I'm getting more articles like that than I strictly require and not enough of the other.
In discussing the redesign, the editors make an valid point:
Often at the Ensign we receive letters asking, “Would you please do an article about __________?” We consider and respond to those requests because our job is to serve the spiritual needs of readers. But sometimes we find that the magazine has recently run an item or items on the requested topics, and readers, for one reason or another, may have missed those articles....
One of our challenges is to serve a wide range of readers, from young single adults to elderly widows or widowers, married couples, and readers from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The magazine, as directed by Church leaders, supports the family in its divine, eternal design—father, mother, and children—as outlined in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102). Yet we know that a significant portion of adult Church members are not married, and many do not live in a family that matches this model.
Although we are not able to address each segment of our readership every month, we believe that a majority of the articles in the magazine apply to every member, single or married, old or young. We seek articles that teach universal gospel principles.
A couple good points here. 1. The articles I want still exist and if I really want to read them, I can find them. (Although, it's worth mentioning, I probably won't.) 2. With such a broad demographic (all English-speaking NAmerican Mormons), not everyone can be perfectly served. (This I recognize. And I don't feel the Church is obliged to do so. But goshdarn it, this is me we're talking about!)
Well. That's probably more review than you wanted to read.
Take a look at the pdf if you don't subscribe (be warned: it's big) and leave me your thoughts in the comments.
last week's svithe