Archives For June 2010

What have head banging, the England football team, parsnip ice cream and digital magazines got in common? Strangely, they all feature in the career of Bruce Hudson, Editor of Retro magazine and founder of the Digital Magazine Awards 2010.

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I was tidying out an old blog I abandoned a while back and started reading through a post that I put up early last year. Having just spoken at the Specialist Media Show about the need for print people to get serious about digital magazines, the piece really resonated.  Here it is again with a few added extras in red.

March 2009 – Three blog posts made an impression on me last week. Two offer a welcome reminder of the continuing value that the market places on quality content, the third agrees, but tells editors (and publishers) to take this notion seriously and start delivering.

The good news first. Gabriel Sherman, a contributing editor at New York magazine, says that the magazine isn’t dying. Citing the growing list of magazines that have ceased publication, Sherman acknowledges that the closure count might suggest the magazine industry is locked in the same “death spiral” as the newspaper industry. But he argues that it’s more complex, and more hopeful, in the magazine sector. (Mr Sherman was right to a large extent: Magazines have not suffered the same way that newspapers have, but the list of closures is a lot longer than it was 12 months ago.)

Sherman believes that there are too many mediocre magazines created simply as weapons in the battle for market share and with little reference to real reader need. Line extensions and me-too titles shoe-horned into former growth areas like property are imploding under the weight of the credit crunch. (The same could be said for digital replicas sent out under a fire-and-forget publishing model designed to cut costs or “extend” reach rather than serve any reader or advertiser need.)

Sherman says the publishers of these titles put advertising first and editorial excellence second, and they are paying the price:

Magazines still retain emotional capital, and publishers need to remember that they’re not in the advertising-delivery business. If a magazine can speak directly to the reader (interactivity in digital magazines anyone), advertising dollars will follow. Titles launched to capitalize on a booming market segment will never survive.

In the online context, but echoing Sherman’s call for quality content, interactive marketing man Seth Godin says media execs choosing between the high road and the low road need to realise that readers have a choice. The low road of “manipulative media” substitutes audience grabbing tricks for real value and only works when the audience continues to show up. Godin contrasts all-too familiar attempts at get-rich-quick gimmickry with useful content that delivers traffic, click-throughs and, ultimately, sustainable revenue. He summarises simply:

If you need to be manipulative or non-transparent to make a buck, time to rethink the plan.

That’s all good then. Content is still King. Editorial excellence is back at the top of the agenda… except, if you believe Mark Newman writing in Folio, where he blames editors for the implosion in the magazine market, not the greedy commercial types that Sherman and Godin take to task.

According to Newman, for too many senior editors, the notion of editorial excellence is frozen in the amber of “this is how we’ve always done it”. He says he is “baffled” by editors that settle for the status quo:

I’ve seen that time and time again, especially at some of my past publications, many of which have died painful, pitiful deaths—usually because the top editor was fine with things just the way they always were when they first started at the magazine 20 years ago! (No threat from a digital replica with no audience, no work either.)

Veteran editor Newman, currently at Southern Breeze, runs through a list of things that editors should be doing to improve their titles. He focuses on design and fresh editorial topics and ideas; I would add serious attention to new digital formats. The specifics depend on the title involved, but the point is to keep your magazine relevant to readers. (This has become even more important in the 12 months gone since I wrote this, if for no other reason than the arrival of 2 million iPads)

Considering these three blog posts together I’m left with one pretty clear thought. Quality content is a valuable commodity, but only if we deliver it (and the audience can access it). We know this instinctively as magazine professionals, the problem is when the word doesn’t match the deed and we get stuck in the past, ignoring contemporary reader needs.

We all need to keep our magazines, online or off, relevant (and accessible) and the only way that is going to happen is if we… well I’ll let Mark Newman tell you:

Get off your hands, pull your head out of the dirt, and remember what it was that made you get into this field in the first place. Otherwise, learn the difference between “large” and “super-size” because you’re deadweight in the magazine industry’s future. (Even after more than a year, I still couldn’t put it better myself.)