Magazine Three-For-One: Fast Company, ESPN the Mag & Conde Nast Traveler

October 28, 2008

The pile of magazines on my desk has started to block the bottom of the window looking out over the farm here in suburban Boston. So I’ve decided to take an active role in whittling down that pile, recycling the glossy paper, and sharing the information in these publications.

Also, if I neglected this stuff any longer the issues would be so out of date you wouldn’t be able to find them on any newsstand, much less in your mailbox, the library or even on a friend’s or colleague’s coffee table.

Let’s jump right in…

Fast Company shouts on its cover about the best design gurus in the world, a feature on Marcel Wanders, a profile of Samsung and Target, and a neat little piece on the 52 gadgets they love. But I think the most valuable article in the October issue is the one on page 95.

It’s the column by Dan and Chip Heath on why companies make it so difficult for customers to praise employees, the process and the firm in general.

The Heaths explore the productivity gains that people exhibit when they receive direct compliments versus their regular daily output. In one particularly well-written sentence, we learn “A thank-you from a customer, then, creates a radiating halo of happiness-employees feel recognized, customers feel joyful, and there’s less coughing.”

The coughing comment comes from the Heaths’ contention that appreciated employees have a better health level than those who aren’t appreciated.

Elsewhere in Fast Company is the aforementioned gadget article. Although it’s misnamed on the cover, I like the piece and the editorial connection it has to the cover theme.

The feature starts on page 157 and is called Design Factories. On the following handful of pages there are 52 WIDGETS (not gadgets) that the magazine loves. Everything from sleek watering cans to thermometers to video game systems to phones, golf clubs and eyeglasses.

These gadgets/widgets blend cool looks with superior function. There’s some stuff on the list and on these pages you might never connect with design excellence (like the Adiri Natural Nurse Bottle – as all it does is mimic a woman’s architecture), but after a closer look you’ll be won over.

Finally, Robert Scoble goes on a rantpage about how technology is ruining the newspaper industry. He stridently feels that if managed correctly, the newspaper firms that are around today can survive if they use tech to share their coverage and serve their advertisers.

While this column is passionate Scoble, it has a point. The one thing I wish he touched on more was the inclusion of citizen journalism as a factor in news organizations’ demise and the necessity of skilled, trained reporters regardless of the media’s eventual form.

Condé Nast puts out about a billion magazines and some are fantastic. I’m not a full-on fan of Traveler, but that’s because I like Budget Travel Magazine and also because I can’t afford a lot of the trips featured in Condé’s publication.

On the October cover, Traveler has Asia Now, Paradise on Sale, and Endless Summer. Both Paradise and Asia tout great values. The Endless Summer piece talks about getaways to Hawaii, Mexico and other locales.

As with most magazines these days, Traveler gives you a full page (20) about their online options. They push you to the Web for more participation with other travelers on their forum. They give you short tip articles and they promise the chance to win a dream trip. Aside from that, there are lists and polls and a number of travel guides.

I say good job with the value-add, but enough Web talk let’s go inside.

The Word of Mouth section is great as usual. It gives a series of one-page snippets and tips on half a dozen places and a few products. The info is easy to digest and seems useful. I’m not sure I can vet it yet because the places listed are Bangkok, Indonesia, Hong Kong and a few other spots I haven’t been. But these parts are well-written.

The main section – StopPress – covers Central Asia. The ‘Stans as the author calls them, are explored in great detail with neat little manners tips, an overview of each country/region, and details on prices and places to stay and visit.

Remember my caveat about this magazine? Well, in the hidden gem of Kyrgyzstan, hotels can be had for $310 and up a night. Some lesser-priced options are available, but this is what I fear every time I read a Traveler piece. I’d rather have a clean place to sleep for $100 a night and spend the rest of my money on food and entertainment.

Otherwise, the writing is descriptive and the pages on each place offer consistent details including The Big Picture, The Draw, Best Time To Go, Hassle Factor, Special Safety Concern and more. I like the layout and how the piece is editorially thought out.

In StopPress as well are a couple other gems. Wendy Perrin has a report on affordable (really) hotels and Kevin Doyle presents you with some interesting thoughts on whether you should give money to locals while on location in their home country.

Finally, the most fun I had in pawing through Traveler this month was with Boris Kachka’s feature on etiquette in China. It’s chock full of straight talk about how to act, react and what to expect when in China. From mealtime to social situations, and even driving, it’s all here.

And in the last of our Three-For-One review, we have ESPN The Magazine. I have a pile of these and my schedule doesn’t allow me to get through them in any semblance of a timely manner. The ones we’re looking at this week are the 11.20, 11.21 and 11.22 issues.

I don’t know where this issue convention came from, but suffice it to say, I use these mags as rest-room and time-killing fodder. These three issues feature (in order), an NHL Preview, an NBA Fantasy Preview, and an NBA Preview. This time of year fantasy sports have taken over the minds and souls of many sports fans. ESPN has recognized this and spends a good portion of its paper on that reality.

Inside each issue is the fabulous Sports Guy. Bill Simmons is from the Boston area which already makes him great. But his writing style, breadth of topic, conversational tone and real-world vignettes are fun to read and informative.

The column in the 11.20 issue talks about rules and Simmons uses golfers, poker players, baseball managers and NHL teams as examples to make his point that the world should follow the Simmons’ set of rules. The little photos in each piece only serve to make them more fun to read (witness the Ted Knight/Judge Smails photo).

Another stellar writer on staff at ESPN is Luke Cyphers. He tackles the oft-talked-about issue of doping and uses the Lance Armstrong unretirement as the keystone to his column. Well-argued and written (and not only because I’m a cycling fanatic).

These two guys are in most every issue unless Simmons is taking another of his 14 vacations a year. But he’s still a treat to read.

Also in each issue is the ZOOM section. Here, a series of amazing photos of sporting events grab your eye. I love the one in the 11.22 issue of the Rutgers College football team doing a drill. The symmetry of the photo is cool as is the way in which color on the field and in the uniforms makes the image pop.

Another piece I always look for is the Answer Guy. He tackles tough questions like why plays are called downs and why Nascar cars only turn left. It’s done in a fun conversation with true experts and some pretty amazing research. You won’t always get a definitive answer, which is also part of the fun. But this piece will always make you think.

Lastly, truly, is the Life of Reilly column on the back page. He’s skilled, insightful and fun.

Ultimately, I read ESPN The Magazine for the writers and not especially for the data. I can find a lot of sports news online and to me, it’s the personality and the commentary that drives the value of this subscription for me.

If you’ve never picked up an issue, take a look. They have regular little sections that cover all major sports and events within each league. They also do bang-up profiles on the big names and tiny names in all sports. It’s deceptively light reading that informs you without much effort.