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It takes ten years for a publication to die

October 3, 2011
Online information service on a computer

Content is king? Only if value is at the centre of editorial strategy

This weekend I had an interesting conversation with a senior journalist friend of mine and among the topics of conversation were how publications (newspapers, magazines, subscription products) can wither and die without appropriate editorial care. Apparently, an uncle of his, operating in journalism in the 1970s, told him that in his experience, it takes ten years for a publication to die. Let’s test this.

Readers of A Brand Day Out know that I am deeply concerned about conistent value delivery from products. This means strong content, constantly fresh, driving new sales from prospects and keeping renewal rates high. This is also true for standalone publications such as books – except here the value delivery of the product needs to deliver word-of-mouth or viral marketing in order to leverage interest and grow revenues within a shorter product life cycle.

It is often the case that in publishing, fresh ideas and consistent market attention are like the grail passing through the Fisher King’s hall: people stare at them without doing anything about them – result, the kingdom falls to ruin.

Yet it is crucial to focus on those features which deliver value more than anything at all: content and content utility. Here’s an example:

Many years ago, I was a regular purchaser of a leading magazine on classic motorcycles. Each issue was a treasure trove of information: motorcycle reviews, factory histories, “how to” articles, interviews with former employees and so much more. Above all, the writing was absolutely top notch: well-researched, in places witty, and written by experienced journalists who knew the English language well.

The magazine was a high quality, information-based source of great utility. Within 5 years the magazine was waning and within ten years it had become irrelevant.

It is still published today but it has become a flabby shadow of what it once was: more glossy pictures than content; tedious “top ten” features (e.g. our “top ten” British vertical twins of the sixties); articles about people doing with old bikes what they really should only do with new ones. The magazine has limited value save as a portal for advertisers to reach readers. Oh dear…

The magazine has been subject to numerous relaunches since the 1990s and even its logo has changed. I haven’t bought a copy of this magazine for 15 years. It is dead – surviving on a past reputation and possessing nothing more than an editorial designed to attract advertisers rather than regular readers.

In our recent article “Content is King“, we argued that new digital analysis permits editorial auditing for the first time: a close examination of those articles which are read above others should create a higher editorial focus and the ability for publishing heads to start to get their publishers to be more market responsive. However, I should say that this too has its caveats and the main caveat is to avoid the hedonistic pursuit of the crass.

In the case of the motorcycling magazine I mentioned, this has occurred. Editors have started to pander to populism: those stories generating most immediate interest have distorted the focus of the magazine. Yet seasoned journalists know that although one story can outweigh others it is the sum of stories about a particular topic which have higher recall.

If editors respond only to populism, publications will soon lose core value and, with core value, go loyal customers. However, it is often the case today that many editorial departments are compelled by cost cutting to rely more and more on newswire services. This too generates news of a lower value – news which can be received anywhere on the web for free – and consequently too drives subscribers away.

So it is that editors  of publications must have intellectual vision as well as commercial vision. Editors need to realise the value of subscribers and subscriber needs. Yes, there can be populist stories but – like ITV’s “…and finally…” slot on”News at Ten” – they must be treated as an humorous adjunct rather than a driver of content. In the end, it is the corpus of news and the value of content which brings people back – not the trivial.

True survival therefore depends on high value information above all. The target for all publishers who are seriously interested in value-based editorial is to mirror publications such as the Economist. This is what is known in journalism circles as a “cover to cover” to magazine. It is read from cover to cover – it offers serious value and it never varies in delivery.

The challenge for publishers is to deliver excellence in a consistent fashion. The danger is to fall into the trap of seeing an established publication as a source of advertising revenue and to ignore how the publication became what it is. Alas, the signs of decline won’t be immediately obvious. It does indeed take ten years for a publication to die – and by which time, of course, it usually too late.

Until some predatory competitor buys it from you and starts to realise the value from it which you failed to see.

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