A Magazine Website Even Dobrow Can Appreciate

Media Reviews for Media People: EW.com

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MediaWorks is happy to widen our pool of staffers for Media Reviews for Media People with Larry Dobrow, who plans to write about any darn thing he likes -- or doesn't. Feel free to send him suggestions. This week, a look at one magazine that seems to actually get how to create a web site every bit as good as the mothership that spawned it.

I look forward to the arrival of Entertainment Weekly in my mailbox every week, if only because each issue is unlike the one that preceded it. I don't mean topically; I mean design-wise. By my rough estimate, EW has undergone 23 graphic facelifts in the last four months, tweaking its color scheme from bright to ever-so-slightly brighter and thinning its fonts from a size 3 to a size 2.5. The upshot? A magazine that is precisely as perusable as it was before the nips and tucks. All together now: After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.

With all the tweaks has come the expected crusade to shove readers towards EW.com, the mag's web arm. EW is hardly alone in this mission, of course. Tactics I've seen range from the subtle ("Be sure check out PitAndQuarry.com") to the obnoxious ("For the lion's share of this exclusive interview with Chyna, including the good part where she totally has a nervous breakdown, visit UsWeekly.com before 4:40 p.m. EDT"). From the increased urgency of the appeals, it seems that desperation has set in.

It's been a rough transition. For every magazine that "gets" the web, you have 10 sites like Time.com (motto: "Last week's news ... today!"). These titles sure want readers to venture online and visit; they just don't know what to do with them once they arrive. In my experience, a magazine website has one shot to charm me. Once I get there and see content lazily rehashed from an issue I just read, I ain't coming back.

I digress. What I'm trying to get at is that most of these publishing lugnuts ought to study EW.com, which over the course of the last 18 months has evolved from a flimsy repository of magazine leftovers to an essential daily pop-culture booster shot. Where most mag websites shovel forth a few supplementary quotes or photo-session outtakes, EW.com offers immediate, unfiltered reaction to everything from awards shows to "Heroes" episodes. Even better, these reactions are presented in a conversational tone, imbuing them with the off-the-cuff bluster not found in the print world.

As thorough as the movie and music coverage on EW.com may be, the site earns its stripes by blanketing the boob tube. The "TV Watch" dispatches on a range of shows, highbrow and lower-brow fare alike, rank among the most consistently entertaining recurring features on the web. Judging by the quantity and (relative) quality of commenters, EW.com's decision to assign a single writer to each show has paid off in the form of blossoming communities. I'm trying to make it through this review without mentioning the word "zeitgeist" -- the last refuge of the pretentious -- but it has to be acknowledged: EW.com is seriously plugged into it.

Which isn't to say that the site has limited itself to mainstream musings. Sure, it plays first and foremost to the Comic-Con crowd, but every day it sneaks in a few goodies for those who want to delve deeper -- a cut from the upcoming Sigur Ros DVD, archival material featuring the formidable and superbly cranky Norman Mailer, etc. You can lose yourself for 20 minutes at a time.

Marketers aren't wise to the site just yet. American Express has been touting its card security in recent weeks on the EW.com home page -- a smart call, given that this web-struck audience is likely to do much of its holiday shopping online -- while consumer brands like Tampax, Garnier Fructis and Secret have had an intermittent presence on the site's music page. I'm a little surprised not to see more mainstream tech brands (Sony, Sharp, Panasonic) and big-box electronics retailers (Best Buy, Circuit City) here, as it would stand to reason that pop-culture waifs might be lured by flashy gizmos on which to view their bootlegged "Diff'rent Strokes" DVDs. On the flip side, iTunes and "Grey's Anatomy" are probably wasting their cash advertising the show's third (!) soundtrack on the EW.com TV page. Such movie, TV show and music marketing tends to get lost among the hundreds of reviews and quick-hit references.

As for Entertainment Weekly itself, well, the magazine still grades out quite high in my book. Even as it eases towards more happy-huggy content, like the new front-of-the-book "The Scene" collection of celeb pix and punny blurbs, it still boasts the sharpest, least starchy fleet of critics around. While I'd like to see EW ease up on the big-movie-of-the-week cover stories, recent months have seen the mag quirk up its features mix somewhat -- the pieces on the post-Katrina New Orleans music scene and where-are-they-now? poster girl Sean Young are prime examples. Happily, they've demoted Stephen King's I-am-old-and-I-am-speaking-very-loud ramblings to a once-per-month slot, giving more space to more original, less fixated-on-yesteryear voices like Mark Harris and Dalton Ross.

Gun to my head, I'll take EW.com over its older, inkier sibling. It's to Entertainment Weekly's credit, however, that there's even an argument. Most magazines would love to have that kind of "problem," no? Anyone who wants to be in on the pop-culture discussion should bookmark EW.com immediately.
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