Sure, ’09 Will Be Tough. You Can Tell the Grownups, Though: They Think Rationally

By Thomas R. Temin

It must have been about three years ago that I was having coffee with a former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post. We met just after the first of what would be several waves of layoffs and buyouts at the paper. Her staff had been cut by about 10 percent. She was realistic about the situation, and had told her staff, “Let’s face it. The blanket doesn’t quite cover the bed anymore.”

The blanket doesn’t cover the bed.

That’s become the condition throughout the publishing world — maybe the entire economy — in the last few months. The resources to do what we used to do, they just aren’t there. So now is the time to think realistically, rationally. Not scared and hair-trigger.

My friend’s response was simple but rational: Narrow the focus a bit and concentrate on doing what remained as well as possible. Eliminate some nonessential nice-to-haves, but keep the meat on the bones.

If only that was the strategy of all publishers. To be sure, not many monthly business-to-business, controlled circulation magazines can afford eight or nine full-time editors and writers, plus copy editor, art director and makeup person. It’s not, say, 1989 in the computer industry any more.

The problem is too many publishers are not merely trimming the blanket, they are slashing it down to a Barbie-doll size. They are not thinking rationally. In a growing number of titles, you can see the effects of overstretched editorial staffs. Both print and digital products suffer.

Matching resources to the business you really have makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is cutting so much that the product suffers and then wondering why the market seems to be disappearing. No, that’s the way leveraged roll-up outfits operate, but not committed, passionate publishers. Don’t be like the airlines and declare war on your customers by diminishing your product.

Remember how expensive color was once upon a time when each shade required the art department to cut a Rubylith and entailed stripping and plate charges at the printer? During one recession, I promised a crusty publisher I would slash color — and color costs — right away. He steamed: “Don’t just cut color! You’ll have a dull book!” Better, he told a then-young EIC, spend on color where you’ll get the most impact, trying to reduce overall costs. Do it rationally, in other words.

Here are a few pieces of advice for 2009:

  • Be a little ruthless in your appraisal of what you can afford to print and what you need for a good web site. Both can’t be all things to all readers. But print is not dead, and in some highly visual markets it never will be. Approach the print-digital challenge for the constantly shifting balance it is. Talk of “dead tree” editions is irrational. Using print as efficiently as possible in terms of frequency, format and content — that’s rational.
  • Take care of your franchise players. If the staff must be smaller, don’t expect a top-notch publication from a bunch of cheap kids. For a recognized and high-performing chief editor or senior editor, what, in the end, is the real cost of having them leave as opposed to giving them a $5,000 bonus? Remember, we’re still in the journalism business, and expecting great editorial on the cheap is daydreaming. It’s like sales. Nobody ever went broke paying sales commissions.
  • Look for cheap n’ easy digital solutions to your need for interactivity and social networking on your site. I know one title that grafted its logo onto a Google group and created a nearly free reader-interaction site. At least it buys time.
  • Don’t be squeamish about third-party content. It’s a long way from judiciously augmenting your staff and freelance work with third-party content, and turning your site into a mindless, RSS-driven link-fest. Again, think rationally.

Thomas R. Temin is a consultant with 30 years of publishing experience in media and information technology products and services. He is also co-host of “The Federal Drive” with Tom Temin and Jane Norris, a weekday morning news and talk program on Federal News Radio AM 1500 in Washington D.C. You can see his weekly column on the op-ed page at www.federalnewsradio.com and contact him at tom.temin@gmail.com.

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