Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ashlea Reece is doing a Masters at the University of Westminster. She sent me some interesting questions about magazines and their PR. These are my answers:

I was intrigued to get your request, not least because I think I have detected a disctinct whiff of anti-magazineism coming from the University of Westminster over the last year or so. But perhaps that's my imagination.

Anyway, you raise some interesting questions.

1. Do you think that magazines are getting the most out of the PR that they currently do? What and how do you think they could improve?
If you mean PR in its broadest sense, my answer is that the best magazines get the most out of it and the worst the least. That sounds self-evident, but magazines which are really switched on to their community-like functions explore a huge range of PR options. These include syndicating stories to other media (especially national newspapers); generating media interest by using polls or surveys and feeding the information to other outlets; organising, sponsoring and attending events at which their readers will be present; using their websites to capture interest; forming, maintaining and monitoring digital feedback sites and reader forums, and possibly using data captured from these for viral-type marketing. Then there are the stunts which some magazines pull, for example some years back one of the lad mags projected a picture of Gail Porter's naked backside onto the House of Commons.
To go back to the self-evident part, PR-savvy magazines are not necessarily those with the biggest circulations or deepest pockets. A small magazine can use many of these channels just as effectively as a big one.

2. As a journalist, do you think that it is necessary for journalists and/or editors to become experts in the field of the publications they write for?
Yes, to varying degrees. Magazines work by catering for very specialised readerships and the journalists who work for a magazine must have a clear understanding of that readership's hopes, fears, needs and wants. This is somewhat less true of production journalists but a subeditor with a good knowledge of the subject area is more likely to pick up errors and thus safeguard the title's authenticity and authority.
Journalists who try to bluff a specialist readership soon get caught out.

Is being seen as an expert in the field of the magazine and getting media coverage as such now a skill requirement for being a magazine journalist/editor?
I am not entirely sure what you mean here. Journalists and editors must be accepted as experts by the magazine's readers, or the title will lose authority and authenticity. This applies as much to fishing or motorcycling magazines as it does to style or fashion mags. Getting media coverage is less of a necessity but you do not have to dig very far to find regular and repeated instances of magazine journalists or editors being called on for expert commentary or background by other media. For example, the editors of railway magazines are much in evidence when there are rail problems; the editor of, say, Jane's Defence Weekly may appear on TV or radio to support defence or security stories, and so on.
Clearly this is good for the magazine's kudos and publicity but I do not think it is a requirement, as such.

3. How has the recent proliferation, market fragmentation and increased popularity of magazines affected the way that they do business?
The magazine market has been fragmented for over 100 years. If you look at Muddiman (Muddiman, JG (1920); Tercentenary Handlist of English and Welsh Newspapers, Magazines and Reviews; London: The Times) the sheer multiplicity of magazines is astonishing - but this is one of the key characteristics of the magazine as a media form; it adapts very rapidly to changing social, cultural, technological and economic conditions.
I am not sure that there has been any great change in the way of doing business but there may be more known about it now, and there may be more of a general appetite for stories about business and the media. There have been refinements in the way that magazines are ordered, stocked and distributed and there are ways of securing shelf space which may not have existed 25 years ago but I don't see many underlying changes. Do you?
Magazines still rely on finding a readership and selling that readership's interest and purchasing power to advertisers.
I have seen suggestions that some magazines now use product placement techniques to raise revenue but I have not yet found the research or evidence to support those claims (which is not to say it doesn't happen). That might signal a change in the relationship between magazine and reader, but readers/consumers aren't stupid. They know about product placement in films and on tv shows and they will be able to see what is going on.

4. How has competition between titles changed? Do you think that magazines engage in negative PR against their competitors?
Magazines have always engaged in negative PR, not all of it in public view. For example, I worked for EMAP for a time then left to start my own magazine. I know for a fact that there were people set to work on trying to persuade the businesses which advertised in my magazine that they were wasting their money. I am sure that this still goes on everywhere and it's just part of being in business; everyone is looking for an advantage.

If you mean the kind of childish stunts which Greg Gutfield (editor of Maxim) tries to pull, or his apparent feud with Dylan Jones (GQ), then I don't think this has any effect on the wider public, or even the readers of the magazines, at all.

5. As major publishing houses own many titles and different types of media, do you think that there is favouritism or reciprocity at work in terms of media coverage given to titles owned by the same parent company?
Of course. Success will be rewarded and failure will not be. This is another normal aspect of being in business. If someone comes up with a convincing plan to make a less successful magazine more successful, or to make it successful again, then it may be favoured with more resources. But if you were the boss of IPC would you be favouring Nuts or Loaded at the moment?

You must also consider the "fortress" aspect. A publisher may own several titles in the same field to raise the cost for any competitors trying to enter that market by covering all the angles. It is likely that there will be one major title (the most profitable) and the others are there to protect it.

How do journalistic ethics affect questions 4 and 5?
If the decisions are being taken by business managers, in way ways do you see this impacting on journalists? I am perfectly willing to give you a more detailed answer to this question but I need to know more about why you are asking it.

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