Magazines in the Digital Age

By Matter

Much has been written about newspapers and their ongoing transition to digital (the topic was covered on Matter Chatter last year); but what about magazines? On Monday, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) released the findings from its survey of practices at magazine Web sites (in addition to a related article), which reveal some very interesting, and at times unexpected, information about the state of magazines’ online content. Like newspapers, magazines are facing decreased readership and advertising, coupled with budget reductions. They’re also learning to navigate the waters of the online world and trying to identify the business models and practices that will enable their Web sites to succeed.

Despite the challenges magazines face in the evolving digital age, I was surprised by some of the findings from the CJR study, which represent 665 consumer magazines. While the survey explored a variety of topics related to Web site practices and profitability, I was most intrigued by how the magazines reported developing online content and their standards for digital publishing. For example:

– Two-thirds of respondents’ staff are involved in producing online content, but only 26 percent of those staffers have prior Web experience

– Fact-checking (excluding blogs) is less rigorous online than in print for 35 percent of respondents

– 59 percent of those surveyed reported either there is no copy editing online (11 percent), or copy editing requirements are less strict in comparison to the print edition

Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times wrote about the “slack editing” on websites last week, asserting, “The only thing standard about magazines’ Web sites is that there are no standards.”

Personally, I hope the magazine industry will unite to develop some sort of online publishing standards, for the sake of journalism and readers everywhere who rightfully expect high-quality, error-free articles from their favorite magazines. However, this will likely take time, as magazines increasingly transition to the Web and determine if and how they can be profitable online.

In the meantime, we can consider how the CJR’s findings affect PR pros. For instance, we should be aware of the policies of each of the magazines we pitch, in order to maximized our clients’ coverage and set realistic expectations. We should recognize the differences (if they exist) between content for print and content for the Web at individual outlets and how that content is produced. As an example, after recently securing a contributed article placement for a client in an online outlet, I asked how we could be considered for the print version in the future and was told the magazine selects the best of the online content to be included in the print issue. Interesting. We should also keep in mind, for now at least, many outlets tend to favor speed above all, when it comes to publishing online content. PR pros can alter pitches accordingly, by offering reader tips from our clients or short contributed articles, both of which can quickly and easily be posted on a Web site.

Like other media, it will be interesting to watch how magazines continue to evolve in response to the digital age and how the changes will affect PR pros. Have you already adapted your tactics for pitching print or Web editors at magazines? Please do share!