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Editors and Publishers not Always on Same Page

Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 11:27 AM

Survey data analysis suggests need for a shared vision, but a stampede toward digital can pointlessly impede content quality.

By William Dunkerley

In December we surveyed editors and publishers about their expectations for 2012. What we found is that, in some areas, both groups have compatible goals. But we also uncovered some serious differences.

There's pretty much unanimity when it comes to interest in growth and survival. And almost everyone agrees that they should increase digital activity. The differences we saw between the editors' and publishers' responses were in areas of emphasis.

The Survey Responses

Our survey elicited sometimes extensive comments from over 20 editors and publishers. The survey was of an anecdotal nature, not intended to produce significant statistical results. In the December issues of Editors Only and STRAT, we published an assortment of direct quotes from respondents. You can see what they said here and here. In preparing this article, we relied upon those and other responses, plus comments that we gleaned from various online sources.

One point of difference that stood out from an editorial perspective: the publishers did not talk about the quality of content. At the same time, of course, editors were very focused on improving content and reader relationships. Perhaps the publishers are just so satisfied with content that they didn't bother to comment. Or maybe they don't clearly understand the role of content quality in the success of any publication. In light of this finding, it would behoove editors to reinforce the notion that the quality of the editorial product is important to the publication's success.

A Shift in Focus

Publishers are very focused on acquiring a larger audience. That's key in terms of growth. But there's not much talk of the editors' role in this process. Wouldn't it be more productive for publishers to invite editors into the process of attracting non-readers? After all, content is what those prospective readers would be buying. That means there has to be content attuned to their interests.

It would require a shift in focus for editors to get more into the business of attracting new audience. The survey responders were quite focused on detecting the needs and interests of current readers. But what about the non-readers who are potential readers? What are their interests and concerns? If editors are to play a constructive role in audience building, they'll have to know the answer -- and start developing content that will appeal to these prospective readers.

The Stampede Toward Digital

The other survey finding worth noting: what at times seems like a stampede toward greater digital presence. As magazines make the move to digital, editors will be pushed toward developing more digital content. But sometimes, as a result of budgetary limits, that results in time devoted to digital development at the expense of overall editorial quality. That may not be a wise choice.

A lot of the push by publishers toward digital involves a quest to bring revenues back to pre-recession levels. But they may be barking up the wrong tree. In reality, more than 90 percent of the population does not use tablets or e-readers to read periodicals right now. We've analyzed a number of external surveys to come to that conclusion. This means that the potential for tablet and e-reader audience development, when stripped of all the device purveyor hype, is really quite limited for the time being. In addition, when device owner behavior is tracked, we find that periodical reading dwindles once the novelty of the device has worn off. So tablets and e-readers seem to have less staying power than the old PDAs in terms of e-reading.

When the Novelty Wears Off

A number of editors spoke of their efforts to incorporate more video and interactivity into their digital content. But we found one external survey that calls that goal into question. GfK MRI, a producer of consumer and media research did a study of tablet and e-reader users. It found that almost half of the users consider video content to be gimmickry. Indeed, 65 percent say they prefer simple reproduction, not extra features.

Another interesting finding -- and at first glance an apparent conflict -- is that 67 percent prefer a publication's digital version to the paper one. At the same time, though, 65 percent say that reading a paper magazine is more satisfying. Some may think that this is an anomaly. But I think I have the answer. After plunking down perhaps $500 for a shiny new tablet, these readers are going to use it to read magazines, even if it hurts! That is, until they've been at it for a year. Then they tend to give up the practice!

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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