Then and now: A study in outdoors magazines

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, September 15, 2013

Last week I was cleaning out the basement and came across an old copy of a popular hook-and-bullet magazine. By coincidence, a friend had just given me a current issue of the same publication. They somehow wound up side by side on the same table and their juxtaposition called out for comparison. We know that things have changed in the outdoor world during the past 55 years, but how much would those two magazines reflect it?

The first and most obvious difference was size. The old issue contained 104 pages compared to its slimmer counterpart’s 84. The content of those pages was even more revealing. Whereas the old issue had 18 of its pages taken up by full-page ads, the newer one has 31. If you toss out the ad pages, then, the actual contents were even more lopsided—86 pages vs. 53. And for those 39 percent fewer pages, you now pay nearly twice the price (adjusted for inflation).

The number of articles, columns and features listed were about the same—two dozen for the new mag and one more for the old one. This is a bit deceptive, though. The non-ad material of the new magazine took up a total of (or parts of) 40 pages compared to 81 pages in the old one. Those were the physical differences. The real indication of just how much things have changed, however, was in the features themselves. Fully two-thirds of the current issue’s offerings were a page or less in length, and the preponderance of all that material was either of the “how to” variety or dealt with gear and gizmos. Only one piece of what could be called “creative writing” on an outdoors subject (a man’s gun dog coming of age) appears in the entire magazine.

In contrast, the 1958 version had no less than half a dozen such features, with a couple of them spanning eight pages each. Two dealt with Teddy Roosevelt’s adventures hunting in the jungles of Mato Grosso, Brazil; a second with his big game exploits around the world. There were also features on hippos, tiger hunting and catching “hawg” bass down in the bayous. These were all substantial stories backed with art and photos—not one-page “fluff pieces.”

Also noted were articles written by Robert Ruark, author of several best-selling books, and regular contributor Ted Trueblood, one of outdoor writing’s literary greats.

The magazine’s covers showed the difference that a fistful of decades can make, too. The old issue’s was graced with a painting of a pursued rabbit ducking for cover, while that of the current issue features what appears to be an enhanced photo of a fly reel as some unseen trophy strips line from it.

So what does the comparison of old and new tell us? In my mind, at least, it’s obvious.

Today’s “sportsman” is all about gear and how to use it. Anything else (like our hunting heritage) takes a distant back seat to things like “extreme” tackle and using it to bring home trophies.

The adventures of Teddy Roosevelt, America’s only “outdoors” president? B-O-R-I-N-G. Modern hunters and anglers also seem to have a short attention span. This is probably why so many “how-to” pieces are only a page or less long in today’s outdoor magazines. Asking a reader in 2013 to slog through three or four pages of solid material (that isn’t even broken up with flashy eye-catching photos) is probably expecting far too much.

It’s a fact, too, that our reading skills have dropped over the years. One of the old magazine’s pieces begins with a 34-word sentence—about twice the number of what today’s standard “readability redline” is set at. That could be another reason for the “easier-read” stuff we see today.

It took a long time to work my way through the magazine of my youth. I’d only intended to skim it to get a feel for the content, but time and again I was drawn into the writing and had to read the entire piece. Rest assured, this was not the case with today’s “outdoor lite” version.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net

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