Is there a future? I went to a panel discussion on just that last night, and three panelists explained the way they think long-form journalism will co-exist with e-readers, apps and the changing world of media.
The first speaker was Deborah Hopp, who publishes Minneapolis + St.Paul Magazine and works in publishing at MSP Communications. She pointed out that humans like the fact that magazines are finite, as opposed to trying to “finish” a web page. And although newsstand sales of magazines are down, readership is up. Hopp threw out a dizzying array of statistics to back up her points. One that stood out for me was that the average amount of time spent reading a magazine is 43 minutes. The average amount of minutes spent on a website? 2.
Hopp discussed many reasons why newsstand sales are down–less service from wholesalers, competition from other vendors at checkout reducing impulse sales, even the location of magazine racks in stores like Walmart changing. Although newsstand sales have decreased, Hopp pointed out that subscriptions have increased. But what about all of the magazines that have folded? It is advertising that puts the nail in the coffin, she said, not circulation.
It was also heartening to learn that 25% of magazine subscriptions come from the internet, and that magazines drive more web searches than any other form of media.
Hopp did warn of some of the risks associated with new media–not least that it risks creating a generation of skimmers. “Shallow readers are shallow thinkers,” she said. And although the internet brings with it speed and timeliness, this is not a substitute for quality and craftsmanship and culture.
Next we heard from Utne Reader editor David Schimke, who is one of my heroes. He spoke about how magazines were devalued as advertisers were looking for bigger numbers of readers. When the ads were dropped in large numbers due to economic constraints, it was the internet which devalued content. Schimke expects a move towards niche publications, such as Mother Earth News, as one example–it was the best-selling magazine in 2010. Motorcycle Classics was another example.
Schimke recommended new writers brand themselves as niche market writers. This could be a topic, such as holistic heath, or a type of writing, such as investigative journalism or profile writing. It is no longer just enough to be a good, clean writer. A sense of expertise is also necessary as these niche publications work with a smaller audience (which they often also sell product to). The world has become much more competitive, so writers also need to be blogging, tweeting, working with authors, speaking, putting video and podcasts on their website, promoting their own work and writing SEO-optimized copy. He left us off with some final words of wisdom–know the magazines you are pitching inside and out. This will become far more important, he predicted, as niche publications lead the way.
The final speaker was Katie Byrne, who worked as a VP of the technology group at Future US and created an award-winning app to bring the print and digital publications she oversaw into the world of mobile phones. Byrne brought a refreshing perspective to the somewhat destabilizing changes in media, pointing out that so many of the social media outlets we have help us build our own brands, and that writers have never had the freedom to tell their story in so many ways until now. Digital media is an enhancer, she said, not a threat, so long as you make it work for you instead of you working for it. Byrne also pointed out that the volatile world of media is desperately in need of expert voices, and those to help determine which content available online is valuable and which is junk.
So what’s the bottom line? Although we can never predict the future, here’s what I got out believing:
- There is still a market for long-form journalism and feature writing. It won’t all go the way of 150-word blog posts and slide shows. Although people crave immediacy and breaking news, this hasn’t replaced the need for in-depth thought and analysis.
- The internet can be used to complement print media, rather than just replace it. (Experience Life magazine does a great job with this–providing links to videos, for example, in their beautiful magazine.)
As a writer, the biggest take-home points for me were:
- While it’s important to hone my craft as a writer (and I do find feature writing the most fulfilling), it’s also important to become versatile and learn new tricks. I personally do not enjoy editing podcasts and feel awkward making videos, but perhaps these are skills I need to spend more time cultivating so that I am ahead of the curve. I prefer to focus on craft, not marketability, but the world is changing and it’s important to keep up.
- At the same time, it’s important not to always jump onto each new development. (Or, in the words of Byrne, “Resist the temptation to overwhelm people with cool shit.”) I had a client months ago who was always chasing the latest technological trend, often at the expense of his client. Introducing new things slowly is never a bad idea.
- Schimke’s prediction that magazine publishing will go the way of niche publishing made me panic a little bit. Although I cover primarily health, nutrition, physical fitness and mixed martial art, I’ve branded myself as a generalist. Deciding what to spend time on–developing key expertise, honing technological skills, or focusing on the basics…is a challenging endeavor, to say the least. I’d like to think that good reporting is good reporting, and luckily we can each develop several areas of expertise instead of limiting ourselves to just one.
- Finally, as was touched upon in the Q+A session after the panel discussion, it is more important than ever to preserve separation between content and advertising. This is a tricky topic which could take all day, but electronic media has opened a whole new can of worms as far as conflicts of interest are concerned.
Any thoughts on the changing world of media? Feel free to leave them in the comments.