Miracle, mixed blessing, or Hail Mary pass?
By Meredith L. Dias
What can magazine editors take away from the recent demise and subsequent resurrection of Editor and Publisher? While news reports associate Editor and Publisher with the newspaper industry, the publication is a trade magazine; therefore, news of the magazine's resurrection is significant to newspaper and magazine editors alike. Embedded in this saga are valuable lessons regarding the volatility of mastheads during uncertain economic times, shrinking editorial staffs and growing workloads, and the importance of editors getting involved in their publications' print and online decision-making.
About two weeks ago, the news broke that magazine publisher Duncan McIntosh Company, Inc., had purchased the recently defunct Editor and Publisher. The new owner plans to produce a February 2010 print issue; thus, despite the disruption caused by last month's closure, Editor and Publisher will not skip a single issue.
Like a lot of publications hit hard by the publishing crisis, Editor and Publisher's editorial department has taken a hit. With the promotion of editor-at-large Mark Fitzgerald to editor comes the dismissals of top editor Greg Mitchell and senior newsroom editor Joe Strupp. According to Mitchell in his January 19th Huffington Post article ["How I Lost My Job (Thanks for Asking)"], "This would bring the size of the editorial staff down to four from six."
The dismissals of Greg Mitchell and Joe Strupp raise an important question: How can editors safeguard their jobs in this uncertain climate? Perhaps the only thing they can do is get involved with their publications' print and online decision-making. If they can succeed in changing reader preferences that would lead to new sources of ad revenue, perhaps they can help bring their publications out of this economic Dark Age.
Many of you are probably all too familiar with editorial department downsizing. Few newsrooms and editorial departments have been immune to staffing changes during this joint global recession and publishing crisis. The downsizing of Editor and Publisher's editorial staff, however, accompanies a planned increase in editorial pages for the magazine. We spoke with new owner Duncan McIntosh via email, and he told us that "the cheapest thing we can do to improve the quality of Editor and Publisher is to give our editors the pages they need to write about the newest trends in production without cutting back on the newsroom. It comes down to a few extra pages on a printing press."
Thus, the new incarnation of the magazine will increase its editorial pages while reducing its editorial staff. This is hardly anomalous in today's publishing world, where editors everywhere are facing heavier workloads with smaller staffs.
There is some debate over what the change in ownership means for the future of newsroom and editorial coverage in the magazine. Various press releases have indicated that the magazine will shift its focus away from newsroom and editorial issues and toward business and technology topics. In his email, McIntosh tells us that "a lot of information being circulated isn't necessarily correct. ... The only changes you can expect to see is that there will be more information on the digital side of the equation, but not at the expense of the newsroom." However, the New York Times claims in its January 15th edition that McIntosh told them that "he wanted to shift Editor & Publisher's focus toward the business and technology of the industry, with less emphasis on what happens in newsrooms." Former editor Greg Mitchell chimed in on this same point in a late-January email to us: "Duncan McIntosh made it clear to me that they planned to focus almost entirely on the business and printing/tech aspects of newspapers," he said. Mitchell cites the discontinuation of the "newsroom-oriented blog, E&P Pub," as an example of this shift away from journalistic coverage.
Mitchell's implication seems to be that McIntosh thinks there's more ad money to be had with publishers than editors. McIntosh himself, however, tells us he believes that publishers aren't spending any more on equipment than editors right now. What's more, Mitchell himself points out that it is editors who are spending money and participating in purchasing decisions regarding computers and software, and on other products and services related to the move toward digital.
In Mitchell's late-January email to us, he states that the magazine's publisher, Charles McKeown, "has long claimed that newsroom people 'do not buy things' so they are allegedly no help in getting advertising. Of course, this is a tragic misreading, since editors -- especially Web editors -- have so much say in what gets purchased most today: software, other digital tools and equipment, everything related to the Web." The future of magazine advertising, he argues, lies with digital and Web products. "On the other hand: What do you think the future of the printing press looks like?" he asks. It is a question that all publication editors should be asking.
McIntosh's online strategy seems to be geared more toward ushering readers into the digital age. "We are redesigning and building a new website with an eye to allowing readers to post individual stories," he reports. "That site will take a couple of months to go live so in the meantime we're doing the best that we can to work with the very limited site that we have. The blogs are part of our plan as we go forward." What is most significant about this online strategy is the apparent introduction of user-generated content (UGC) to the website, the same concept that propelled YouTube, Wikipedia, Photobucket, Wordpress, and others to Internet superstardom. Promoting such a change in reader habits and preferences is important when the publishing industry is in a state of flux and struggling to keep up with current technology, and when more and more sites are employing various forms of UGC.
All eyes are on Editor and Publisher as it makes this transition. Can the revamped publication help rescue the industry it serves, thus saving thousands of editorial jobs nationwide? With the planned increase in business and technology content, will this iconic publication uphold its titular promise: to provide content of value to editors and publishers? Whether or not the magazine succeeds in these two areas, Editor and Publisher's roller coaster of a month has taught us a lot as editors. Our purchasing decisions, our insights and ideas, and our willingness to adapt to sometimes impossible conditions make us not only relevant to the future of publishing, but vital. Conversely, inflexibility on our part and an unwillingness to adapt can leave us out in the cold. The past month has also served as a reminder that even the most entrenched mastheads are subject to change. Even the best of us aren't invincible.
Meredith Dias is the research editor of Editors Only.
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Miracle, mixed blessing, or Hail Mary pass?