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The Metamorphosis of Government Magazines:Amazing Pingtung and Benshi

2020-09-14
Esther Tseng /photo by Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams
 
The Metamorphosis of Government Magazines
The Metamorphosis of Government Magazines
 
Bright, moving illustrations, practical information about life, and deep explorations of topics make for magazines that people can’t put down. The only way you would know that these are government publications is by looking at the masthead.
Not so long ago, magazines and newsletters put out by government departments typically consisted of ­photos of the department head, news items, and not much else. They were simply collections of copy-pasted summaries of briefings on government direct­ives, and press releases—sleep-inducing, one-way communication.
Government departments think differently now, and employ livelier, more creative approaches to explain policies. They also give professional print and social media editors more freedom to put their skills to use. No longer lifeless, official print publications have become relatable, which has them flying out the doors rather than taking up storage space. In this article, we explore the wonderful transformation of government periodicals with profiles of two refreshing new magazines.
 
Pingtung County magistrate Pan Men-an wants county publications to highlight Pingtung’s local color and aesthetics.
Pingtung County magistrate Pan Men-an wants county publications to highlight Pingtung’s local color and aesthetics.
 
Amazing Pingtung

In December 2019, Pingtung County changed the name of its flagship county magazine from Anju Leye to Amazing Pingtung. (Anju leye—”living and working in peace and contentment—is an idiomatic phrase that suggests a citizenry enjoying the benefits of good governance.) The cover of the first issue of the revamped publication highlighted its sumptuous new visual style with a photo of father-and-son nose-flute masters Pairang and Etan Pavavaljung. Inside, ten full-spread photos showcased Pingtung’s highlights. The first issue also featured locally oriented articles on Wuwei camellias (Pyrenaria buisan­ensis) and gangkou tea, and an interview with kendo coach Guo Youfa. For the next issue, which coincided with the Chinese New Year, the editors made ­every page a festive red color, and focused the articles on seasonal foods like cured meats, “long life” vegetables, and Hakka-­style rice cakes that highlighted the county’s ethnic diversity. Amazing Pingtung truly lived up to its new title!
One county citizen quipped that the old version of the magazine was useful for its Pacific Department Store parking coupons, and made a good placemat for boxed meals. Schools provided with free copies would ask for deliveries to halt because they had no space for them. But that changed for the bimonthly Anju Leye and the ­county’s quarterly publication Very Pingtung after Pan Men-an became Pingtung County magistrate. Suddenly, schools wanted more copies, not fewer. When demand surged for Anju Leye, people began dropping by to try to scrounge up copies for themselves and their institutions.
 
Pingtung’s government publications show readers not just the county’s high points, but also its needs.
Pingtung’s government publications show readers not just the county’s high points, but also its needs.
 
Opening eyes to Pingtung

Amazing Pingtung’s editor-in-chief, Hou Cian Jyuan, who became editor of Anju Leye and Very Pingtung in 2015, believes that a truly Pingtung-focused publication must pay heed to the county’s various ethnicities, and report on all its regions.
“I think that the people of Pingtung lack confidence. This is a great place, even if there are things it doesn’t have. County magazines should show people the best of Pingtung, reawaken their awareness of the place and reinstill their confidence and sense of identity,” says Hou, whose friends describe her as a “Pingtung fool.”
Hou has been well regarded since her earlier days editing magazines for Pingtung’s Taiwu Township and Mutan Township, with some remarking at the time that “these township magazines are better produced than central government publications.” She received still more acclaim when she took over Anju Leye and Very Pingtung. But she admits it has been challenging. “You don’t change a publication overnight, especially when you’re aiming to change a bureaucracy that is focused on metrics like page counts and numbers of copies, and cares more about bookkeeping than about content.” But then Huang Jian-jia, at that time director-general of the Pingtung County Information and International Affairs Department, came on the scene, opening a window of opportunity to change this entrenched status quo.
 
Amazing Pingtung’s detail-oriented editor-in-chief Hou Cian Jyuan tweaks each issue of the magazine right up to the moment it goes to press.
Amazing Pingtung’s detail-oriented editor-in-chief Hou Cian Jyuan tweaks each issue of the magazine right up to the moment it goes to press.
 
When Amazing Pingtung reported on the local character of Eske Place Coffee House, readers brought copies of the magazine to the cafe for Tony, the barista, to sign.
When Amazing Pingtung reported on the local character of Eske Place Coffee House, readers brought copies of the magazine to the cafe for Tony, the barista, to sign.
 
Hidden in the details

Huang sought out Hou and suggested changing up the magazines. He wanted county government publications that would “make people’s eyes light up.” Huang says, “I bore with [the old ways] for a long time, [but] a magazine should spark interest and make people want to read it.”
They called it a revamp, but it was really a brand new publication. Amazing cut its print run from 80,000 copies per issue to just 40,000 while simul­taneously launching an online edition. Huang also re­located the distribution of free copies to bookstore cafes, barber shops, clinics, and breakfast and lunch shops, seeking to catch the eye of greater numbers of county residents by putting the magazines in places where people spend time. “Customers in hair salons used to read fashion magazines while getting their hair done. Now they read Amazing,” says Huang.
Hou was recently diagnosed with lupus and began chemotherapy. Though ill, she continues to work hard and remains committed to getting all the little things right. As a case in point, she recently had her staff spend three extra days fixing a layout because she thought the original version wasn’t on point. Similarly, during the production of the first issue of Amazing, she visited Eske Place Coffee House three times to ensure she had gotten the perfect picture of a barista at work.
Commenting on the quality of county magazines, Pan Men-an says, “I’ve worked for years to build Pingtung’s brand, and the key to doing that is content.” Notably, that content doesn’t include his picture, which he keeps out of county publications.
 
Nowadays, patrons of Pingtung salons read copies of the county’s Amazing Pingtung magazine while getting their hair done. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
Nowadays, patrons of Pingtung salons read copies of the county’s Amazing Pingtung magazine while getting their hair done. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
Benshi magazine’s editorial objective echoes the architectural concept that informs the design of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts: it aims to break down the walls between people and the arts.
Benshi magazine’s editorial objective echoes the architectural concept that informs the design of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts: it aims to break down the walls between people and the arts.
 
Benshi

The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Wei­wu­ying), which began publishing Benshi in January 2018, is often asked about the publication’s connection to the center. Why doesn’t the magazine promote the center and the performing arts?
Benshi has yet to introduce a performance at the center, instead writing about superstitions, April Fools’ Day, extraterrestrials, and other outside-the-box topics. It even uses different paper for the cover of each edition.
Chien Wen-pin, the center’s artistic and executive director, explains how the magazine got its name: “The reason why the arts move people is that artists are dedicated to their craft and make it the best it can be; that’s what makes a good performance. Wonderful performances grow out of the performers’ demands of themselves and their perseverance both on- and offstage, the years they’ve spent acquiring their skills [“benshi”]. Benshi is a magazine that highlights people and things that have undergone this honing process.”
 
Chien Wen-pin, the artistic and executive director of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, says that artists subject themselves and their work to extensive honing, and that Benshi exists to highlight the results of that process.
Chien Wen-pin, the artistic and executive director of the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, says that artists subject themselves and their work to extensive honing, and that Benshi exists to highlight the results of that process.
 
The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts’ Benshi magazine is filled with creative design flourishes.
The National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts’ Benshi magazine is filled with creative design flourishes.
 
Bringing art and life closer

How do you show this kind of skill? The editorial team chose to echo the architectural concept at the heart of the center’s design. Architect Francine Houben integrated elements from banyan trees and Kaohsiung Harbor into her design for the center, making it inviting and access­ible to the public as a way to break down the boundaries between people and art. Working from the architectural concept of “breaking down walls,” Chien’s goal is to produce a magazine that people can read without pressure, in the same way that they might visit the center.
Given that the production of creative work is in­separ­ably linked to life experience, the theme of every issue of Benshi does in fact have ties to the performing arts. Chien mentions the magazine’s third issue, a particu­lar favorite of his, as an example. The issue, on the subject of superstition, delves into performers’ practice, before shows, of placing Kuai Kuai (“well behaved”) brand chips atop lighting and sound equipment and on offering tables as a kind of prayer that things go well.
Benshi positions itself as a performing arts magazine. But, as editor Stella Tsai explains, “The performing arts are a little removed from most people’s lives, so the question for us is how we can help people get into them.” The magazine’s tenth issue, which takes “sounds” as its theme, encourages readers to first open their ears to the sounds all around them, and then to go to plays and concerts.
 
The editorial team at Onion Design Associates says that producing each issue of Benshi is like climbing a mountain: you tell yourself you don’t want to do it again, but you get such a sense of fulfillment from it that you end up doing another issue.
The editorial team at Onion Design Associates says that producing each issue of Benshi is like climbing a mountain: you tell yourself you don’t want to do it again, but you get such a sense of fulfillment from it that you end up doing another issue.
 
A visual design exhibition

Based on the idea that design is everywhere, the maga­zine doesn’t limit itself to the performing arts, but also serves as a medium for the display of visual arts. With that in mind, the editorial and design teams allow their creativity free play, incorporating numerous design tidbits into the magazine. For example, they put scratch-off panels on the cover of the first issue, and played an April Fools’ Day prank on readers of the second issue, on the theme of fools and jokers, by delivering some copies with only blank pages inside.
For the magazine’s ninth issue, the editors wrote goutong (“communication”) on the cover in braille to speak in a way both direct and ambiguous to readers who use touch, sight, or simply feeling to communicate. Fearing that the tenth issue, on “sounds,” wasn’t “loud” enough, the team wrapped copies in a jacket that could be folded into a paper popper. 
Janett Wang, a designer with Onion Design Associates, which does graphic design and editorial work for Benshi, says that sometimes the magazine goes for elegance, as with the optical illusion on the cover of the superstition issue. Sometimes it takes a more direct approach, as when for the fifth issue, “the beauty of tools,” it left readers to separate the pages for themselves with an included tool, resulting in a ragged-­edged copy. And at other times it can be vibrant as well, as in the eighth issue, in which the entire issue was presented in comic-­book form.
In addition to being the director of the National Kao­hsiung Center for the Arts, Chien is a well known conductor. Though he admits he’s never been able draw, he nonetheless sketched an image “for aliens” in the fourth issue of Benshi.
He also personally writes an introduction to each issue, explaining that the magazine is an aspect of the center, one he hopes readers enjoy. In this period of decline for print publications, Amazing Pingtung and Benshi demonstrate that magazines still have the power to inform.
 
Pingtung County’s Anju Leye magazine profiled Yoyuan Farm as part of its effort to forefront interesting but relatively unknown people and places in the Pingtung countryside.
Pingtung County’s Anju Leye magazine profiled Yoyuan Farm as part of its effort to forefront interesting but relatively unknown people and places in the Pingtung countryside.
 
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama
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