ScopeScope: What’s In,
What’s Out and Why

What, exactly, should your magazine be about? And how does it validate the mission and create a path for growth and prosperity? In many cases, it’s not what you put in; it’s what you leave out.


It should be the most obvious part of a magazine premise: what’s it all about? But here’s the complication — magazines not only need to be about something, they need to appeal to someone. Scope is the sum of all the editorial decisions you make to attract and appeal to all your audiences — readers, advertisers and investors.

Scope comes from the Italian skopo, meaning aim, and the word skopos, which means target. So, in the most basic sense of the word, scope is not only a declaration of your intended content, but an evaluation of how well your magazine meets its own definition. You get to build the target and then you choose how to shoot at itand to complicate mattersyou get to constantly move the target.

The parts of your scope are relatively simple. Your magazine is defined by its mission, and the degree to which you broaden your focus extends your scope. But the more inclusive your content, the less you can rely on your readership to be intrigued with the entire magazine, and the more difficult it becomes to create a distinctive niche. Finally, practical considerations of archetype, advertising, page count and production specifics affect scope. You have to actually produce the magazine you promise.

One way to think about this is to chart editorial in three dimensions: defining the breadth of your content, the degree of depth in your stories and the relationship between content and time. Some magazines may have a huge breadth but a small time frame (think newsweeklies), while others may have incredible depth but extremely narrow breadth, such as an academic journal. Mapping your content can sharpen your perspective and highlight problems in your scope. You may not be able to create the editorial depth you want in the time or money you have to produce each issue, or you may have so much breadth that it can’t fit into your page count. Keeping an eye on your “value proposition”the amount of engaging content you offer readers in exchange for their money and timeshould be a constant benchmark for editorial structure.

Finding the Right Scope

There are no “rules” about how content is created for a magazine; sometimes the only true defining factor is the interests of the publisher or editorand when their publications are synonymous with their eccentricities, the results can be successful because of them. Many of these eponymous pubs, like OThe Oprah Magazine, or Martha Stewart Living benefit from the enthusiasm and credibility of their founders despite the fact that they aren’t in traditional masthead positions. Marvin Shanken molded Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator into luxury vehicles that reflected his own interests, and found an enthusiastic audience. No one would question the fact that Henry Luce’s political and moral obsessions drove Time’s coverage in the first two decades of its existence, and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy remains a testimony to his own world view.

Discounting the paragon publisher effect, you can create a scope based on logical elaborations on your goals for the magazine. Here’s where we start making use of ideas that have been described in earlier parts of the series. As you’ll see, there are five elements that can be considered when determining the best scope for your publication.

1. Be Mission Forward

In the first part of this series, we described the mission statement of your magazine as similar to a business plan. Your scope is your editorial plan of action for your magazine, and the choices you make should be directly derived from your mission.

The mission statement also has practical business goals attached to it that don’t translate directly to editorial, but there still needs to be accommodation for those goals. If your trade publication plan identifies a dozen vertical markets that need to be addressed to facilitate ad sales, an editorial structure has to be created to support that mission element. It could be an editorial package that addresses these elements in individual departments, or a series of special sections that cover the gamut one market segment each issue. Even provision for advertorial concepts are part of your editorial scope.

2. Respect the Archetype

Even the most iconoclastic publisher still has to pay attention to where the magazine will sit on a newsstand, and if it’s a new title, both readers and advertisers want to know what “kind” of publication it will be. More than that, identifying the archetype serves as a starting point for what the magazine is and isn’t; a reference that new readers can use to understand why the magazine should matter to them, and ultimately why they should prefer it to competitors in the niche.

There are editorial motifs that are expected in certain archetypes. Cooking magazines will have recipes, seasonal menus, a focus on food and menu types, and technique and provision information. Referencing the archetype doesn’t mean following it so much as deciding how your scope differs and why. As much as O is Oprah’s baby, it still fits solidly in the middle of the Woman’s Magazine archetype.

3. Go from Broad to Narrow

Here’s another visualization technique that might make sense too. Most people know what Venn diagrams are, and maybe even their cousins, Euler and Johnston diagrams. These can be handy ways for scoping your scope. In this instance, a large circle represents the entire mission of your magazine. Inside this shape should fit broad editorial elements that make up your book, and within those, individual department or story components that will actually appear each issue. Some of those components might overlap two of the larger components, and in fact, the more they do, the more interesting they can be.

Almost everything stays within the largest circleit’s your missionbut perhaps the next area of exploration might be content areas that only partially intersect with the mission. These are the dangerous but seductive editorial elements that broaden your scope but dilute your audience focus. There are always corollary factorsreader demographics, advertiser vertical markets and content synergiesthat are compelling enough to warrant an expeditionary foray outside the Venn circle of your mission. Look how successful the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition becamedefinitely out of scope!

4. Find a Unique Approach

No matter how unique your magazine may seem, there will be content that is similar to content in other publications. There is always some form of competition, even if it isn’t always another magazine. Covering similar editorial ground as other sources is a natural result of being part of an archetype, but how you handle the material makes all the difference. Wired magazine has a letters department and a new products department, but they are called, respectively, Rants ’n Raves and Fetish. These approaches reflect both the mission elements of the publicationand a sense of what their readers would find engaging.

Developing franchise contentstuff not found in any other publicationis also a function of scope. Creating unique department concepts and building feature stories with enough depth to become annual tentpole issues help a publication grow a personality reflected in both editorial choices and tone.

5. Build a Reader Paradigm

Lacking the driving force of a publisher determined to proof content against his or her own idiosyncratic interests, one way to begin to refine your scope is to construct a reader paradigm by defining the perfect reader and then using interviews and reader demographic information to confirm, revise or extend your “perfect reader” profile.

Imagining your typical reader helps develop a sense of corollary interests that your real audience might have and the possibility for expanding your scope to accommodate them or add to your business opportunities. The same is true for refining your scope to eliminate editorial that might appear opportunistic or at odds with your core values.

Your “perfect” subscriber doesn’t have to be real, of course. Someone half male and half female is not the same thing as having a 50-50 gender split in your subscription base.

You could start by building a Frankenstein’s monster out of all the particulars in a reader that is on your wish list, without regard to actual demographics (start-ups might not have anything in the way of a subscriber base), in an attempt to establish the explicit parameters of your scope and then try to find your reader universe through list building from other publications that have overlapping demographics.

Knowing most of your readers are independent entrepreneurs, or that they also have children, are valuable pieces of data that might seem irrelevant to your scope. Yet, if you know your audience shares a similar interest, lifestyle or affiliation, there might be opportunities to incorporate content that could further solidify your subscription base. At the very least, there is evidence to show advertisers of an off-scope product, or if you share your lists, the potential for more sales.

Scope is a tool for growth and a check against losing sight of the core content that attracted your audience in the first place. The ability of magazines to constantly change and yet somehow stay true to themselves is a delicate balancing act revolving around the twin needs of staying valuable to your original audience while building a loyal following of new readers attracted to your publication for new reasons.


This article originally ran in Issue 5 of FPO.