For Newsstand Success, Magazines Must Stay True to Editorial Mission

By: John Morthanos

I have conducted an exercise with many of my clients lately, where we identify their editorial mission and then actually deliver that mission to consumers on the newsstand.

Realistically, for the newsstand, it is not easy to promote the editorial mission. Unlike media kits for advertisers or subscription offers, it is up to the cover image, headlines, and category position on the rack to promote the editorial message and convince a browser pick up the magazine.

It’s easier to sell the editorial mission to potential subscribers, whether it’s on a bind-in card, a website, or via a subscription agent. But publishers must be careful. If a new editor tweaks or changes the editorial mission in future issues, chances are it will hurt that magazine’s three primary sources of revenue: Advertising, Subscription, and Newsstand.

A History of Editorial Missions Gone Awry

A change in editorial mission can kill even the most successful titles, as pointed out in The Curtis Caper by Joseph Goulden. In this book, Goulden explores the decision of the Curtis Publishing Company to change The Saturday Evening Post’s editorial direction and format from family-friendly to political in the late 1950s. In 1964, the company recorded a loss for the first time in over 70 years. By 1969, The Saturday Evening Post, the last of the Curtis Publishing properties, closed its doors.

Still in the past, but a bit more current, Cowles published a magazine called Country Journal. Originally titled Blair & Ketchum’s Country Journal, it was very much a New England title, with limited sales outside of the Northern Tier of the U.S. The magazine featured user-friendly editorial on how to raise goats, build stone walls, and grow vegetables, as well as human interest stories and crafty projects including making candles at home.

Circulation was steady until there was a change of editors in the late 1990s, and the new editor subtly tweaked cover images and editorial. The friendly, folksy editorial style developed by Ketchum and maintained successfully by Peter Fossil had changed. Gone were the line art covers that were trademarks of Country Journal. The new covers had photos of, for example, folks in a commune or a dog running across a field of snow. Editorial changed too. Sales began to drop on the newsstand and eventually Cowles closed the title.

And finally, Playboy is the latest example of how a change in editorial focus can severely damage the popularity of a magazine. Playboy decided to eliminate nudity in its magazine last year, and as a result has experienced a dip in circulation and stagnant advertising revenues. A few weeks ago the publisher reversed its decision and is including nude photos once again.

Design Covers With Your Target Audience in Mind

Logically the answer is, if your editorial mission is to deliver a message that brings together those that love and want to learn more about a hobby, a sport, or a lifestyle, deliver that message. Don’t have the editorial veer away from that message. If you are an advanced concept or professional magazine, the newsstand is not necessarily the best place to reach your audience. Typically, more technical magazines build readership through subscriptions.

The average shopper in Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart or Kroger’s is not a PhD. If they want to buy a craft magazine — let’s say knitting — they are buying the magazine for creative ideas and designs they can duplicate. They are not buying the knitting magazine to learn how wool is made, the DNA differences of sheep, and 101 uses of lanolin. I can assure you that a knitting magazine offering 101 new patterns and a guide to making beautiful baby gifts will sell better on the typical newsstand than a more technical cover.

The more advanced knitter will be the minority audience and will most probably be a paid subscriber – or a newsstand subscriber, someone who purchases a few issues of a monthly magazine a year because of her interest in a cover story or editorial feature.

If the editor is writing for himself because he likes the technical side of knitting, and reduces the number of hands-on design ideas, he will surely alienate the large percentage of newsstand buyers who are neophytes and hobbyists. While the editor can incorporate some editorial on his technical interests, he cannot allow that to detract from the editorial mission of providing helpful tips and patterns for the beginner and advanced knitter.

So how can publishers assess a magazine’s editorial mission? You know your core audience through subscription sales and letters to the editor (usually from the dedicated reader). If you have a website or newsletter that is bolstered by an audience database, than you have full user profiles of your readers and understand their interests and behaviors. In fact, your website is a good place to test new ideas and subcategories and see how they are received before you invest the resources to bring those stories to print. But you must remember, if you veer away from the mission readers have bought into, you may risk alienating them.

You can build and expand readership and categories by subtly including new concepts related to the basic mission of the parent titleUsing Craft Magazine as an example, it built an entirely new category from its basic editorial. In the 1990s it launched new sub-categories and new magazines for consumers and retailers. A title on scrapbooking was the largest, and it also launched knitting and quilting titles. The parent publication met the editorial mission and the new categories helped to expand revenues and readership.

The alternative — forcing new and unrelated concepts into a magazine — will only damage your relationship with readers, damaging newsstand sales, subscriptions, and advertising revenue.

Author: John Morthanos

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