Friday, March 05, 2010

General interest magazines: The difficulty of publishing for a condition rather than a need

The main problem faced by anyone trying to create content for a “general interest” magazine is this: my general interests are likely to be very different to yours.

Because the magazine is not being read for the kind of specific purpose a specialised or niche title fulfils it is very difficult to judge the depth and breadth of both existing knowledge and interest in any given subject. If the content is being created by journalists who are outside the targeted age range, the task becomes even more difficult.

This was brought home when I was reading through one of this year's course magazines, a challenger to the Saga/Yours duopoly that dominates the over-50 end of the market. It's a good idea, not least because of the way national demographics are going and it has come up with a great guiding strapline for the cover: It's your time. Use it. That sets a clear enough overall agenda and there has been lots of great material that does exactly what the message implies.

But there are certain things that continue to strike a false note, and one of them is content related to music. This is an area where both "general interest" and "age" come into play.

Because it is general interest, the journalist cannot assume the reader will necessarily have any interest at all in music, or in the kind of music under consideration. There may be many readers who will simply skip over these pages. There may be others who have a passing interest and would like to develop that. There will certainly be some who not only have a deep interest in music but, when it comes to popular music, were there when it first happened.

Thus posing a question like "What did we get?" when comparing the American folk scene of the 60s and 70s with that of the UK becomes both highly loaded and dangerous to credibility. Anyone who was there and had an interest could, without thinking too hard about it, reel off a pretty long list of names [1]. But how many readers would be interested in those names anyway?
John Martyn playing Bristol University Student...John Martyn playing at Bristol University student's union, 1978. Memory not available to those much under 50. Photograph by Tim Duncan; image via Wikipedia
The main point here is that potential readers of this magazine are unlikely to pick it up because of its music articles (although some may be tempted by an in-depth look at the folk scene of the 60s, for example), or its food articles (although unusual recipes might pull them in), or its travel pages (although well thought-through trip advice could attract some).

So if they're not going to buy it for specialised content, what's left? I don't have an answer to this but it must surely involve the following elements:

• the overall mix of content
• the overall tone of writing
• a combination of broad brush and in-depth features
• clear signposts to further sources of information

This whole issue comes back to the difficultly of publishing for a condition rather than a need. Being over 50 years old is a condition: in itself it is neither here nor there. However, people who are over 50 will have certain needs in common (to generalise wildly – healthcare, pensions and financial planning, relationships with children, grandchildren and partners, etc) and it is not unreasonable to suppose that there may also be a fair degree of shared interests, or the potential to develop latent interests given that it's their time and they can use it.

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