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Analysis Is Key in Magazine Editing's Future

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:26 PM

What's becoming of the magazine editing profession?

By William Dunkerley

It's time for magazine editors to get together for group analysis. I'm not talking Freud. I mean we need to analyze where we're going as a profession.

Usually we're too preoccupied with the struggle to put out the next issue to give much thought to seemingly non-pressing concerns. But there are some serious obstacles ahead -- even further ahead than next year's editorial calendar.

The actual role of magazines in contemporary society is up in the air. For a long time pundits have been saying that print is dead. Now it is the actual concept of a magazine that is in question. Do current-day readers really need or want editors to decide what they should read, package that content together, and disseminate it? And if readers don't need editors to do that, where does that leave you?

I think it's time that we put our heads together and figure out our future prospects. Then we can plot a successful strategy that will be beneficial for the profession.

Reader Preferences in Flux

Google Trends reports that the entire subject of "magazines" is in decline. Of course that just means that fewer searches are being conducted on that term. It's not a real barometer of the industry. But the downward curve certainly looks ominous. (Note: The time period of this and subsequent graphs is from 2004 to present.)

Figure 1: Google Trends report on the search term "magazines."

But magazine editing follows suit. Fewer searchers are looking for information about magazine editing.

Figure 2: Trend line for "magazine editing."

(Note: The graphs only present trend information, not absolute values. So, for example, while the interest in magazines seems to have the same amplitude as that in magazine editing, there actually is an enormous difference. Far more people are searching for "magazines" than "magazine editing."

Is the decline in magazine editing searches attributable to editors and editorial wanna-bes losing interest in print and in search of information about digital editing? Is that where our future lies? Google Trends actually lends some credibility to that hypothesis. The trend line for "digital editing" actually goes up.

Figure 3: Interest in digital editing is trending upward.

But before you open Google on your Web browser and start your own search, consider digital editing as a broad term. It does not necessarily refer to publications' work. Digital editors are needed for sales content posted by online retailers, product information supplied by manufacturers, and a host of other applications. In fact, Google Trends bears that out. A search for "online magazines" shows the cursed downward pattern once again, albeit flatter that the earlier curves.

Figure 4: The "online magazines" term shows a shallow yet downward trajectory.

What Can We Make of the Trends?

What's the story about digital readership? We hear glowing reports about the ascent of digital publishing. One report proclaimed, "Digital readership up more than 80 percent in past year." On the advertising side, another report heralds, "Magazines' iPad editions see 24 percent ad boost in Q1."

So digital is on its way up, no? Yes, it is, but not in such glowing terms as those reports. Notice that they talk in percentages. This means that, just as the graphs above for "magazine" searches and "magazine editing" searches look alike in percent terms, they are not really alike in absolute terms.

Take the "digital readership up more than 80 percent" claim, for instance. That's mighty impressive. But what gets lost in the fine print is that digital readership only accounts for 1.4 percent of all magazine readership! Doesn't that put a different spin on things?

Focusing on Reality

The sorry truth is that as important it is to incorporate digital into our future, a lot of caution is needed. There are an abundance of digital equipment manufacturers and people involved in the sales and supply chain who are overstating the current reality about digital publishing.

A lot of publishers look at the digital successes of some leading mass market publications and wrongly assume that things will work the same for them. The story is different for special interest consumer, trade, and professional magazines, though. Mass market publications can sell well at the checkout counter in a supermarket. But if you're editing a magazine for plumbers, you can't expect to use the same point-of-purchase techniques.

That's why editors need to start talking to one another and compare what's really happening at their respective publications as they extend their brands further into digital. I'm not talking about disclosing company secrets, but comparing notes on concepts that have shown measurable results and those that haven't.

In a recent edition of In-Plant Graphics magazine, editor Bob Neubauer touched on the benefits of information sharing. His readers operate the printing and graphic departments of corporations, universities, government agencies, and other organizations. Neubauer reported that at a recent conference of the In-Plant Printing and Mailing Association, he "overheard dozens of conversations between managers comparing the way they do things, relating their experiences with a certain piece of equipment, suggesting new services that have worked for them, etc. When commercial printers chat with their competitors at similar events, they're more guarded in what information they give out." In-plant printers, on the other hand, "seem to work for the common good," he concluded.

I think we editors need to do more of that at this critical time in our history. We need to work for the common good. Here at Editors Only, we're ready and available to facilitate your cooperation and information sharing. To start, please contact us with your concerns. Write to concerns@editorsonly.com.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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