Magazine A-List 2008

Idea of the Year: Reader-Generated Content

Magazines Are Handing Over Space and Even Entire Issues, but How Much Is Too Much?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Upon receiving the Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America in 2000, industry legend Don Logan noted the simplicity and ingenuity of the business model he helped perfect while he was overlord of Southern Progress Corp. The company's goal was to convince readers to share their recipes, which would then be reprinted and sold back to them.

That model, Mr. Logan stressed then, was rooted in both practicality and seduction. He said he believed readers wanted to feel like valued, contributing members of a community.

Noir cover
This Old House cover

'They know a hell of a lot': Readers contribute to all issues of JPG and a special issue of This Old House.

Just how valued do readers feel eight years later? Well, publishers are asking them to create entire magazines. In the past year, several mainstream magazines have embraced reader-generated content and surrendered some control in a way that would've amazed even their most forward-thinking predecessors.

Time Inc.'s This Old House for the first time gave readers (as well as web surfers and TV viewers) free rein over the magazine, transmogrifying the June issue into Your Old House. Even BusinessWeek got in on the action, letting readers brainstorm and create a substantial portion of the content in its "Business@Work" summer's-end double issue.

Then there's 8020 Publishing's JPG, a 2-year-old photography magazine that's all reader-generated, all the time. JPG boasts a mere two in-house staffers -- an editor and an art director -- who are charged with fashioning a narrative from the content voted onto the pages by readers via the magazine's website.

Welcome to the family
The magazine business has always relied on readers to generate some of its material, as witnessed by everything from appeals for anecdotes and hints by titles such as Reader's Digest to Penthouse's request for, uh, "personal lore." The difference now is the extent to which readers are getting involved.

"Anytime you can rally them to participate, to send in their ideas or give their feedback -- you'd be silly not to take advantage of it," Mr. Logan says today. "It strengthens their bond with the magazine. It makes them feel like family."

"You're seeing more [reader-generated content in magazines] because people don't want to be dictated to by some anonymous editorial entity," says Mitch Fox, a former Condé Nast higher-up and 8020's president-CEO. "There's an opportunity to organize these communities and have them create print media."

Carolyn Dubi, senior VP-director of print at Initiative, New York, puts it more succinctly: "Consumers want more control. Giving it to them makes a lot of sense."

There are any number of reasons that magazines have started appealing more aggressively to readers for stories, essays, photos, lists, directions, issue concepts, even deconstructions of already-published stories.

Limits to freedom
To begin with, it's easy. The web facilitates reader/editor communication and the sharing of large chunks of self-created content. Of course, it's far from an inmates-running-the-asylum situation. BusinessWeek Editor in Chief Steve Adler stresses that for its "Business@Work" issue, the magazine didn't cede either its "editing or curating functions."

Even if it had, communities that have organically sprung up around magazine websites confirm what most editors and publishers have long suspected: that their most ardent disciples are pretty darn smart and passionate about the subject matter at hand.

"We've always thought of ourselves as the experts, but readers' experiences are just as valid as anyone's," says This Old House Editor Scott Omelianuk. "Now, I might not hire one of them to work on my house, but there are people out there whose depth of knowledge could be as great as any editor's. You start communicating with them, you'll realize that they know a hell of a lot. That's valuable."

Reader-generated content makes sense for just about any title. Field & Stream might solicit input on the best unknown fishing holes; Cookie might ask readers for parental coping strategies. Let's face it: Much of what we read in magazines falls easily under the banner of "common sense," and it isn't like writers and editors have a monopoly on that.

Given the current climate for magazines, it can't hurt to experiment with ideas that feel a tad gimmicky, whether reader-generated content, blinky digital covers, DayGlo pop-up inserts or whatever else the in-house mad scientist can dummy up. Perhaps through an occasional embrace of such tactics, an otherwise set-in-its-ways title can energize its reader base.

Harmless fun?
"Occasional" is the key, however, because as with other strategies, magazines can go too far with reader-created content. "You do [reader-generated content] 10 times a year, you'll turn the loyalists off," Mr. Logan says. "But why not try it? Some magazines publish 50 times a year. You can have some fun with it, and it won't hurt your brand in the long term."

There are other reasons for editors and publishers to be wary of the trend. As Mr. Logan notes, there's a reason why most readers aren't working in journalism. "You put out a call for photography, 90% of the pictures are either sunrises or sunsets," he says.

Plus, while reader-generated content may resonate with the fraction of readers motivated to provide it and comment on it, a large swath of a title's audience might wonder why they're paying for -- and paying attention to -- people who are "just like them." Mr. Adler says his magazine received more plaudits than razzes for the "Business@Work" issue, but "some people maybe prefer that you talk from a place of authority."

Finally, and perhaps most critically, marketers might not be too keen about the prospect. While Ms. Dubi says no magazine in its right mind would attempt something like this without first surveying the lay of the land -- "they wouldn't change their font size without doing research" -- she still frets about how increasing doses of reader-generated content would be received.

"The risk is that anytime you give consumers more control, it means that marketers have less control. I've worked with several clients who feel that way," she says.

Mixed feelings
Mr. Fox acknowledges "a very bifurcated response" from the media community for JPG, even as endemic advertisers such as Canon, Epson, Nikon and Hewlett-Packard have embraced the magazine.

Mr. Adler, on the other hand, questions why marketers wouldn't respond enthusiastically. "You hear so much about how they want reader engagement," he says. "Well, how much more can you engage readers than by bringing them into the magazine experience?"

Mr. Omelianuk agrees: "Advertisers can learn from an issue like Your Old House, just like editors can learn from it. It's not just some statistics; it's unvarnished feedback about what they're doing, what their needs are, what they're struggling with. There's learning to be had."

Still, while both Mr. Adler and Mr. Omelianuk describe their recent experiences with user-generated content as uniformly positive, neither has committed to similar features and/or issues in the future.

Only Mr. Fox plans to push forward aggressively with other titles that employ the JPG model. 8020's on-hiatus travel title Everywhere will reappear later this year with a narrowed focus (and possibly a different name). The company also has plans to launch three other magazines before 2010 is out, though Mr. Fox declines to identify possible areas of focus.

Off the wagon
Ms. Dubi doubts reader-generated magazines will be "the next big trend" and says magazines that push such content too hard risk antagonizing marketers.

"In the marketing world, it's about being first and being different," she says. "When it becomes a bandwagon thing, that's a problem."

As for Mr. Logan, he'll be monitoring the proceedings from afar. "What [magazines using reader-generated content] are doing is fun from a voyeuristic standpoint to find out what readers and subscribers are thinking," he says. "You read that BusinessWeek issue, didn't you? That's my point. If it's a regular issue, maybe you wouldn't have, and I can't imagine that you're alone in that regard."

Esquire's big anniversary idea

The digital cover may have turned out to be more a blinking gimmick than a game changer in the mold of that real-time USA Today front page in "Minority Report," but we still congratulate Esquire and Editor in Chief David Granger for the achievement marking the magazine's 75th anniversary.

George Lois, the legendary Esquire cover designer, was unimpressed, but advertisers have to appreciate the effort Esquire invested in creating something different for Ford, the inside-cover sponsor. Happily for Esquire, the digital cover also attracted well-deserved attention to its strong anniversary issue and a solid editorial year.

Like many magazines in this difficult year, Esquire has seen its ad pages decline. They had dropped 14.3% through its September issue compared with the first nine issues of 2007, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Average paid and verified circulation grew to 726,358 for the first half, up less than 1% over the first half of 2007, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Newsstand sales rose almost 4% to 112,898.

At its party celebrating Esquire's 75th, Bill Clinton said the Hearst Magazines title deals as beautifully with superficial business as it does the serious stuff. "It's OK to want to look good, be hip and still use your brain," Mr. Clinton said.

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