The Media Satchel – What's so fancy?

In doing a search on Jamie magazine's circulation recently, I was intrigued to read a comment left by someone about fellow foodie mag FANCY, whose circulation had eclipsed Jamie's in the July to December 2011 audit (fancy that!). It said: 

"It is ridiculous - and rather sad - for any customer [sic] magazine to boast of 'overtaking' another. Quantity of circulation is often irrelevant to targeted publications. It is more important to reach a large percentage of a desired audience than to pump publications out to an inappropriate readership. If Jamie magazine has reached its client's optimum circulation, whether that is in terms of cost, audience penetration or whatever, then it is a success – and there is no achievement whatsoever in "overtaking" that title."

In sticking with this week's theme of failure and success, does circulation (insofar as beating out the competition) matter one iota if a publication's mission is accomplished by sticking to its objectives and serving its intended readership? Because we really do get obsessed with big numbers and popularity and hits these days, don't we? At what cost? As we have seen of late, with News of the World and the Kyle and Jackie O radio show, popular doesn't necessarily equate to solid production values.

That's the problem with a market-based economy; goods and services are thought of more in terms of quantity than value, though I think there's a sense that consumers are waking up to this all over the place. I think we all know that cheap crap doesn't hold a candle to something carefully created or procured by some person we know or admire.

As with most things in life, which is inherently relational (people, people, everywhere!), it's a publication's relationship with its readership, its ability to distinguish itself according to its editorial objectives and its willingness to stick to sound practises that matter in the end. In the rush to make something a commercial success, it can sometimes lose the plot.

So, to that end, if, say, The Australian Financial Review is satisfied that it is reaching businesspeople and the fiscally stimulated with its digital and online editions, then it is doing its job; same goes for Jamie and the gastromically excitable who don't mind shilling out a pretty penny for a shiny new issue.

How they uphold their values, and serve their readership in the best fashion they can without compromising that relationship is the true test of their quality. And in a world where the "glory days" of banks appear to be over (at least until the financial markets regain some equilibrium), we cannot always expect to see growth, nor link growth with success. 

Some entities are flash-in-the-pan overnight successes, some will enjoy a fruitful season before passing on, some will never make it out of the gates... the important thing, I think, is to believe in something's true worth. Romantic? Idealistic? Maybe. Call me old fashioned, if you will.

One of the fascinating aspects of the Finkelstein Report (aka The Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation), which I must confess I am only 100 pages into, is the examination of the newspaper bundle: of consumers being offered a plethora of national and international news, financial market information, weather reports, feature stories, columns and special interest magazines, together with exclusive photography, cartoons and other visually stimulating things (I love an AFR pie chart).

The "price of newspapers reflects the value consumers place on components of interest to them," it says, which alone is a point of interest: what components are you drawn to and do you consume the other parts, too, or simply eschew that which is not relevant to you (and what are the implications of this for younger readerships in particular, I wonder, in terms of shaping their world view)?

To maximise newspaper readership, prices are lowered, meaning the cost of printing your paper reflected in its price ($1.50-$3) doesn't reflect the price of production (millions), so revenue is supplemented by advertising sales. Only, obviously, advertising (particularly classified) is gravitating towards the internet, which is producing the kind of enormous audience numbers once the domain of newspapers, radio and TV. Even group buying sites are attracting as many visitors as your average news site, which opens up a whole new domain for advertising.

But, overwhelmingly, it's news and current affairs sites published by established media that still gain the lion's market share, and, what's more, Australians are consuming news produced by Australians (the degree to which Aussie journalists are replicating globally circulated news, let alone PR-driven drivel, is another matter). This is why it's of such concern that they uphold the statutes of the journalism they claim to practise. 

Another thing: people aren't spending a great deal of time interacting with news and current affairs online overall, at least in a truly measurable way (which the online industry is trying to put the numbers behind), which in turn makes it hard for online entities to charge copious amounts of money to buffer the coffers (which could help them create content) and difficult for advertisers to come to an understanding of the true value of a website to its readers.

"To advertisers, the number of pages viewed and the amount of time spent on a news site can be more important than the number of visitors," says the report. "Their primary objective is to generate the best return possible from their advertising expenditure and naturally value a high chance of their message being exposed to readers."

However, notes the report, the frustrating thing for traditional media is that all those lovely advertising dollars are being dispersed amongst websites that don't actually create content, which is a pricey activity. "The earlier media system rewarded both the distributors and the creators of content; the new one primarily rewards those who find and distribute content," says the report. The tough thing is protecting content through our current copyright laws and taxing those who fail to comply in a system that is global. And fair.

On that note, recently global news network Associated Press, which recently launched a new logo and look for the "digital era", has developed a model for charging for its original content online. Under the "NewsRight" banner, the organisation hopes to generate revenue from websites, blogs, news aggregators and other newsgathering services that aren't paying for content, and ameliorate traditional news organisations who feel the current state of play (that they pay and others don't) is unfair. The company will also track the unpaid use of its content from its 29 founding member companies, including The New York Times Co. and The Washington Post Co., and those who join.

A small sidebar item from Monday's Australian Media section: "Future of journalism education." The Council of Economic Advisers in the US has found that newspapers are the country's fastest shrinking industry (surprise!), however the top three growing industries over the past five years include the internet (at number two) and online publishing (number three) meaning there is still adequate opportunity to exercise one's journalistic inclinations, so long as there is money (hence, the New York Times shifting the chess pieces now it has 500,000-odd subscribers on board).

William Zinsser pens "Zinsser on Friday" for The American Scholar
Still with New York... New York magazine has taken out the general excellence/digital prize at the American Society of Magazine Editors' 2012 National Magazine Awards (aka Ellies) for Digital Media, as well as an Ellie for best website. Wired was another winner (for design and digital media reporting), as was The New York Times Magazine (for its video for "My Family's Experiment in Extreme Schooling") and Foreign Policy (winner in multimedia for the posting of "The Qaddaffi Files: an FP Special Report").

National Geographic was recognised for Best Tablet, and Time for the Best Utility App for its “Populist” iPad application. The Daily Beast's "Book Beast" won the Best Website Department award, while the weekly column "Zinsser on Friday" penned by 89-year-old William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well) about writing, popular culture and the Arts for The American Scholar won the award for Commentary, Digital Media.

With the Melbourne-based Herald and Weekly Times publication the Herald Sun becoming Australia's first mass-market daily newspaper to put up a paywall, journalists and media academics at each other's throats and a proposed government-backed media council on the cards, the future in media is nothing if not interesting.

And yet, just as the banks' "glory days" of windfall gains are coming to an end and a new era in finance is commencing as they continue to report healthy profits, "the [Finkelstein] inquiry has concluded that, despite the intense pressures facing it, the Australian press is in no immediate danger of collapsing."

Would you fancy a career in media?

Updated: Thursday March 22 @ 8am

Girl With a Satchel