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Recession Fears: A Threat to Editorial Budgets?

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2019 at 10:12 PM

Economic downturns typically put a squeeze on a publication's content expenditures.

By William Dunkerley

The Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman claims there's a "pretty good chance of a recession sometime in the next year or so."

Recessions are usually toxic to editorial budgets, so Krugman's prophecy is quite troubling. Editor & Publisher magazine has already put its readers on notice. A recent article explains:

"The entirety of US history tells us that it's a question of when, not if, the next recession will hit."

E&P elaborated:

"With a 10-year stretch in the 1990s as the only exception, we've never gone longer than eight years without one. And it's been nine and a half years since the last recession."

Not everyone agrees that we're headed for a full-blown recession. According to EO reader C.G. Masi:

"I do not agree that a recession is in the offing. As far back as 2009 I used PCA (principal component analysis) to look into likely economic prospects for the (then) foreseeable future using the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a proxy for general economic health.

"It indicated gradually improving growth through 2018 followed by about five years of slowly deteriorating performance leading to another slow-growth period reaching its nadir in the 2025–2030 time frame. So far, these trends are right on schedule."

Masi cautions that his analysis related to general economic conditions and not to the publishing field specifically.

Another EO reader, requesting anonymity, put it this way:

"I agree we're headed for a downturn, but it's unclear how severe that might be. It's also unsure what the effect might be this time on editorial. Less spending on the content side is always a possibility. But at my publication we've been diversifying into new areas such as events and more in-depth research products. So that could minimize any impact on the traditional side of our business from a softening economy."

Whether we'll see a recession or just a slowdown, the prospect of any downturn portends nothing good for most editors. It's certainly an issue that needs to be on our radar. Now is a good time to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses and to get ready for whatever the economic challenge.

Robin Sherman of Robin Sherman Editorial and Design Services offers this detailed analysis:

"It seems with so many mergers/acquisitions over so many pre- and post-digital eras, that publication editorial and design resources -- especially print -- need to be increased. Management support for continuing education is critical.

"Editorial and design staffers, who used to work 50 hours a week before digital, now have to work many more hours to accommodate email newsletters, websites, etc. They're faced with smaller staffs and fewer monetary resources for reader research, freelancers, and even for rewriting press releases to incorporate original reporting and additional news sources, etc.

"Thus, the quality of our products has decreased dramatically in many instances. I see this when I judge journalism contests. So many submissions are lacking in journalism/design fundamentals. Even in business-to-business journalism the lower overall quality damages trust among readers. Trust cannot be taken for granted.

"Bear in mind that some of the lower quality is the result of editors and designers not knowing how to think like the other. (I.e., editors must understand design; designers must know journalism.) Not knowing precisely what their readers need and want and how to package the content for accessibility and usefulness is a related issue. Plus, many editors and designers simply don't know how to engage the reader.

"We're all chasing technology, too, as it changes every three months. It's all we can do just to get the publication out. We are own worst enemy sometimes."

If we don't look now at our publications' strengths and weaknesses -- and, indeed, the quality of our content -- we may come up short in the future. Ten years ago Editors Only ran an article titled "Editors Suffer from Recession Cuts." Its lead decried:

"These days when editors speak of 'future tense' they're not talking about grammar."

We explained:

"Publication editors are apprehensive over what's ahead. They're seeing their colleagues' jobs terminated. Their own jobs are on the line. Raises are cancelled and sometimes salaries are cut. Workloads are up. Morale is down.

"And what did editors do to deserve all that? Nothing. Most have been doing their jobs well. The reason they've been receiving the brunt of this recession is because their companies or organizations have been experiencing revenue shortfalls. As a result, many top managers go looking through the budget for things that can be cut."

An unfortunate fact of life is that when revenues decline many publishers have a knee-jerk response to cut editorial expenses. We need to have strategies for dealing with that.

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

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