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[May 18, 2014]
Opinion The Future isn't content - it's job cuts and ads
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The average corporate announcement from a magazine company boss resembles a word cloud into which a bunch of pious-sounding generalities have been herded before being pointed in the rough direction of a sentiment. The recent announcement by Zillah Byng-Maddick, when taking up her appointment as the new CEO of Future, the publishers, if we can still use that word, of cycling, craft, computer and cinema magazines, if we can still use that one, was a tad crisper. It had to be, not least because Future is the only publicly-quoted company in British magazines and investors prefer crisp.
She said there would be redundancies and for those remaining promised a very different way of doing things. For a start the business would no longer be structured round content types. Instead a single content and marketing team would produce all content. From the City's point of view this sounds like common sense. But for journalists, who tell their friends they work in cycling or movies or computer games, the removal of this fig-leaf to reveal just another elf swinging a pick on the slopes of Mount Content is a bit of a reverse. Magazine people traditionally give their first loyalty to a subject area, their second to a title and then only latterly to the company that happens to own the title. That's all gone.
She further sketches a future in which "our expert, trusted content enables us to attract large communities of highly engaged customers who want to buy things, and that's exceptionally appealing to our clients". No mention of either readers or advertisers there. Instead it's customers and clients, two words that an editor used to be able to go through an entire career without allowing them to sully their lips.
But that's just outdated sentiment. There's nothing Byng-Maddick says here that other CEOs and Future employees haven't thought. Everybody knows the future is going to be ad-funded. The challenge is in moving to this new dispensation without abandoning whatever standards have brought the business this far and whatever lustre your brands might have.
Magazines were once a two revenue stream business. You got money from advertisers and readers. Successful publishing depended on holding the balance between the two. This delicate equipoise has gone. As cover price revenue either declines or refuses to grow then the bulk of the money that pays your salary comes from advertisers, sponsors and commercial partners.
That brings cultural change with it. Norm Pearlstine, the grey eminence who used to preside over Time Inc's much vaunted wall between church (editorial) and state (advertising), formerly had the title editor-in-chief. He's now chief content officer, which is a bit like being downgraded from master chef to catering officer.
Like overheated suitors, advertisers used to lean against the wall between church and state, twirling their moustachios and hoping against hope that they would be the first one to punch a hole in that structure, an aperture just big enough to allow their client, and only their client, to climb through. They wanted to be the one to get their brand on the cover, their product featured on the editorial pages without the pesky words "advertorial" above it, their editorial credits more numerous than any of their competitors.
The problem is once they'd done that they lost interest. Advertisers want to sleep with you but also want you to remain a virgin. They want to believe the favours they were granted are not being extended to the next hobbledehoy who comes along. They believe in the division of church and state as long as they can set up their stall at the altar. They talk about how important it is to maintain the credibility of the brand, while quietly hoping the brand will lower its standards just this once to let them have their evil way. If they're the only ones paying they'll get their way.
If magazine publishers want a chilling warning about what happens in a one revenue stream business they could always look at radio. In my old colleague Mark Ellen's newly published memoirs of his time in magazines, Rock Stars Stole My Life, he recalls the 90s when Emap's music magazines were delivered up to its radio division. One senior radio head briefly floated the idea that since magazines' five-star reviews were so valued by record companies it surely made sense to run more of them and market them to labels as a kind of advertorial on steroids. They didn't go through with it. The fact they even thought about it illustrates the gulf between a business that has traditionally put the readers first, knowing that if you build it advertisers will come, and the sort where the only customer is the one with the chequebook.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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