John

Magazines: Meh.

In magazines on February 10, 2011 at 4:52 pm

“I don’t want to work in the mag line again,” said one former mag editor whom I randomly bumped into in a cafe. Sadly, she’s not alone in her opinion — the sighs and groans of the magazine editor here are getting louder, and the skepticism seems part and parcel of most people who’ve worked the magazine line since the early 2000s.

Being a former magazine editor myself, I can’t blame them. The media landscape has shifted tremendously thanks to the Web, and the romance, magic, and influence of being the editor of your own goddamn magazine is fading away. When I’d just joined in the magazine line with KLue, the world of magazines were still mystical, the curtain that hides the Wizard still thick and opaque. A writer’s byline was tied in with a certain expectation of wit, controversy and prose.

Comparing then and now, most of the things mag editors and writers are familiar with  — the celebrity interviews, the photoshoots, and the late night hours — are still there. Gawd, are they still there. But what pulled us through the low-paying jobs and long hours was at least the sense that we were still having fun. Not so these days for few of the veteran magazine editors who are increasingly stuck behind in companies so dedicated and focused on print and advertisers that the magazine itself has lost track of its most important customer: The Reader.

Back in 2003, when I was a starry-eyed rookie writer for KLue, magazines were very much a part of our media diet: Most publishing houses didn’t have a focused web strategy, and one could argue why it hovered on the bottom of many Managing Editor’s to-do list. I still had dial-up at home, and so was restricted to the kind of rich-media environment of news we had today. YouTube hadn’t existed. Twitter was not even an idea. Friendster was still an odd idea that I had yet to be goaded into. Back then, I used to devour magazines, cover to cover.

Just 7 years later, everything’s changed. I get my news from Twitter and iPad apps like Flipboard, where I can customise my own serendipitous reading experience. (So much for that argument, newspapers.) These days, monthly magazines reporting on news and issues happening on Jan 5 become moot a month later. Like you, dear reader, editors feel equally frustrated at sounding dated. “That new Samsung Galaxy Tab? Pfft. That was soooo one month ago, and you’re publishing a review of it two months later? Lame.” Yeah, we know. And we hate it.

As editors — and I believe all media men and women are the same — we’re driven by the reader. We’re driven to inform them, make them laugh, and think, through whatever medium works best. Editors are merely conduits of information who curate and editorialise the news and issues. And it’s frustrating to see that many local publishers still haven’t embrace and recognise the web — clearly the most influential medium now — as equally important as the print.

“Print dollars for digital cents,” they’ll argue. “Don’t give up precious advertising dollars on print. We need the circ numbers to boost up our advertiser base, and we can’t do that when we give all our content for free to readers on the Web.”

So ultimately this boils down to a simple question: Who are you writing for? Are you writing for the advertisers, who still place a higher dollar value over digital cents? Where does the magazine’s customer — the reader — fall into? They pay RM10 for a magazine delivering news that’s dated, thanks to a shrinking editorial budget that doesn’t allow you to get quality photos, and engage talented writers who get paid on time. And why is the budget shrinking? Because advertisers, the very same ones who the magazine places a higher regard for than the reader, see the magazine as becoming less influential.

And once the magazine starts to fade away into irrelevancy, frustration sets in. Editors sit on their couch, bringing home the day’s stories and layouts to clear at 11pm, and they think: “Why the hell am I in this magazine anymore?” Editors are passionate about their readers, and if they don’t see readers talking about or reading their magazine… then what’s the point?

And advertisers in turn, are asking more of the editor to come up with creative advertorials — yeah, nice work in pushing the responsibility — and I can relate to being stuck with promotional features and advertorials to deliver, which may or may not fit the clients’ single-page brief written in double-spacing. Did I become a mag editor for this?

Magazines here need to think beyond the medium, and start thinking again about the reader. Sure, pouring in for a website strategy will take money, but it’s essential in retaining the magazine’s relevance and brand value. And having a website is hardly “cannibalizing” print — only publishers who think that all they’re worth is the content they print on dead trees is playing a dead-end strategy, and overvaluing their content. If readers can’t get it from you, they’re gonna look for it in the hundreds of links provided using Google.

And it’s not just a web strategy that’s a cure-all: Go out of the way to reach the reader in whatever medium or technology that suits them best. If you’re a food guide magazine, develop an app that discovers the latest promotions around them. If you’re a men’s magazine, make those high-gloss photos and articles available for viewing on an iPad (men can be lazy bastards, so it makes total sense for them to buy your mag off the comfort of their couch).

A publishing company is more than its printed product on dead trees. Companies who think that their sum worth is in its print advertising will be lost, as will be their editors.

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