Earlier today Aaron came into the living room and said “Hey, did you read that article in the Times about Lonny and Rue and online magazines?”. I flicked open a new tab in my browser and immediately went to check it out. I’m not sure what I expected, or why I was surprised, but it was not the story I expected to read. To be honest I expected a glowing review of all online pubs as the next wave of design and a snarky declaration that blogs were becoming irrelevant. Sort of an “All hail online magazines! The future is here!” piece. To both my pleasure and displeasure that was not the case. But what was written was both spot on and disappointing in countless ways. Other than my once-in-a-blue-moon ICFF rant, I can’t remember a time I was more compelled to respond publicly in such an immediate way.
I want to start first and foremost by saying that Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, really influenced what I’m about to write. The book’s biggest takeaway message for me was that women need to stop seeing each other as competing for the same few spaces. She didn’t say that women shouldn’t compete, but rather that we have control over how we treat each other within our industry. This online design community is full of women and sadly that sometimes means it’s full of cattiness and gossip. I got caught up in it the first few years of blogging and regret nothing more than allowing that behavior to play any role in my life. I learned my lesson early on and have since learned not to discuss anyone or anything behind their back and to try harder to understand that different people (bloggers and readers) want different things and there’s plenty of room for everyone to co-exist without having to tear someone else down to get there. So for me, one of the most fundamental flaws in the article was framing the discussion as a competition where only one person/magazine would really win. To focus so much on the competition felt out of touch and off focus when there could have been a real discussion here about the future of what we now think of as “magazines” and what role these early web versions play in that movement.
This is going to be a long response (3,300+ words) because this is a topic I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while now, so I hope you’ll join me after the jump below and contribute your own thoughts on the subject. -Grace
Having now read through the full article three times (you can read the article here if you have not already), I feel like my concerns break down into the following core issues:
- The article seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the way web readerships and publications work
- Traditional media continues to find a way to marginalize the web as a valid source of quality content
- Online magazines are struggling to find unique voices and the Times accurately (although with a tone that leaves much to be desired) describes their major problems
- Articles like this are a reminder that we, as readers and producers of online content, have to work harder to be taken seriously.
- Younger women, as content producers and business owners, need to take greater control over how we are presented and how we present ourselves
I want to break down these points because I think they’re incredibly important to discuss at this stage of our existence as members of the online design community.
The article seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the way the web and web readerships and publications work
One of the most disheartening things I learned while working for traditional print magazines was how often they’re pitted against one another. When I was at House & Garden we were constantly being compared to, and threatened with the success of, sister publications at the same publishing house. I kept being so surprised that we weren’t seeing other publications as representing different facets of the same community, rather than people we had to push off the podium in order to get a place. I cannot speak to the history of print publishing, having only worked as a contributing editor for four years, but I can speak to the current state of the web industry, and the message is clear: there are enough advertisers, readers and content producers that the old model of “only the top 5 survive” is no longer accurate.
It seems to me like traditional media is laboring under the misconception that people only read one magazine or blog. So often articles are framed in a way that puts blogs or online magazines at odds with each other to see which one will win. But the reality is, there’s plenty of room online for great content. And when it’s (at least for now) free people will read as much as they want, as long as it’s interesting. They don’t have to choose which magazine to read because they only want to pay for one or two- they can easily add 5 or 50 new free blogs/online magazines to their reader and support them all.
It’s irrelevant to keep pushing this idea that only a handful will make it, because that’s not the real story. The story is that there’s a huge change taking place in publishing and these people are part of it. I would have liked to see more emphasis on examining the quality of the publications and what they’ve done correctly rather than the petty sounding pull-quotes about an interest in fame versus decorating.
Traditional media continues to disregard the web as a valid source of quality content
As much as I agreed with some of the more critical points in this article, I felt a kinship with these content producers because we’ve all been thrown under the traditional media microscope and quickly written off as somehow less than valid, important, intelligent and experienced. Yes, most of us lack traditional print experience (I know I would have given anything to keep working in print for a few more years to learn valuable skills) but what we have been able to achieve online deserves a level of respect I feel most of us aren’t given. I can’t begin to tell you how often I (and Design*Sponge) continue to be written off, eye-rolled over, or rudely laughed at as being a “little craft blog” or any other variation of that phrase. While this particular article didn’t go quite that far in terms of obvious disrespect, the underlying tone felt much more akin to an older brother talking down to (and sometimes laughing at) their kid sister than a professional analysis of a valid online movement.
While these online publications hold a lot of responsibility for their own public image, I think traditional media has had plenty of time to write bloggers and online media off as some sort of disparate group of yappy girls who talk and don’t say anything important. As a community we represent a staggering amount of people, influence and change and I’m tired of people not taking those of us who take our work seriously as legitimate members of the media community.
Online magazines are struggling to find unique voices and the Times accurately (although with a tone that leaves much to be desired) describes their major problems
This next point is tougher to write, because I’ve worked really hard not to critique other content producers. Namely because I know they’re still growing and changing and because it’s so often misunderstood as cattiness or jealousy. But as someone who’s been absorbing an awful lot of it over the past few days I feel like voicing an opinion, in a constructive manner, is an important way to get a discussion happening. The more we avoid talking about issues in our community the more they become gossip, whispers and talking behind each other’s backs- and the more we miss out on opportunities to make us stronger and better. In the current media climate where online publishers are routinely written off for their lack of professionalism, there are clear ways we can work to prevent that.
My primary issues with these online magazines were summed up well in the article and I’ve expanded on them here:
*Some of these online magazines are strikingly similar to print publications
As a former Domino contributor, I was initially uneasy with how similar many of these publications were to my former employer. I know so many people miss Domino, but those column ideas and styles were created by real people who still live and work in NYC. I would love to see people actually hire those writers and have them continue those ideas online rather than redo them in the same style (often in the exact same layout) by someone else. If that’s not an option the alternative is to speak to the new writer’s specific style and taste. There has to be a way to make your own voice unique, and if you can’t find one, than a larger-scale online publication may not be the best fit.
*They often overlap homes, interviews and features
The Times accurately pointed out that these publications share homes, ideas and interviews often within a few weeks or a month of each other, which leads me to wonder why no one is asking for exclusivity from their subjects? This was one of the biggest aspects of magazine publishing I brought back with me to D*S- asking people to wait to share something with another large publication until we’d published or had some time to let that article breath.
This is an issue in the blog world, too, but primarily because things spread so quickly online that you can’t stop every blog from re-posting something. That said, there are only a small handful of online magazines right now, so ensuring exclusivity, or at least a different spin on the same article, shouldn’t be impossible yet.
*There is a distinct lack of editing happening, despite titles like “Editor in Chief” being used.
This is my biggest issue with online magazines, period. I can’t stress it enough. If you want to have the cachet that comes with being a “magazine editor”, you need to be an editor. I don’t feel that editing from 200 photos down to 60 is enough editing. If a story spans 40 pages and includes variations on the same image over and over, there’s more room to edit. Magazines are about projecting a level of quality, care and thought that comes from producing less content, less often. I think this really is the key to these online magazines being successful in the long term. If they can learn to truly edit (and perhaps come up with exciting web extras based on their outtakes and extra shots) they will start to live up to what I think most people expect from a “magazine”. Until then, I feel strongly that 3/4 of them would benefit from turning their content into a really excellent blog.
I know “everyone and their mother has a blog” now, but blogs (in all genres) are still producing some of the most well written and edited content online. I know it’s easy to be lured in by the idea of being a “magazine” editor, versus a regular old blogger, but the bottom line is this: If you produce high quality content, it doesn’t matter what title you put on it. Good content is good content.
*There feels like a focus on packaging and marketing over content
This issue was what put me off of a few online magazines before they’d even launched: hype that felt so incredibly aggressive and self-promotional that I couldn’t see through to the content. All great publications thrive on great content. Yes, marketing is an important part of getting the word out, but if you don’t have the well-edited, high quality content inside the pages to back it up, it starts to feel like hype for the sake of hype. I dealt with this issue a lot when I was doing blog and business consulting last fall. People wanted a shortcut to the success that comes with hard work without doing the hard work. But the truth is that loyal readers and staying power have more to do with dedicating yourself to content and a supportive team than banners, buttons and parties.
*Internet “fame” is tempting but fleeting
The hype issue above plays into something that Michelle from Lonny mentioned in the article about people wanting to be “famous” via online magazine success. (It killed me to read that pull quote from her about being it for for fame vs. decorating. I know how things can be said off hand when you feel comfortable with a reporter, but that one was painful to read. It’s a good lesson in never ever feeling so comfortable with a reporter that you let sarcasm in. It always gets edited and printed as cattiness)
“Fame” is entirely relative to the time and place you’re in, but I can speak from experience when I say that there’s always going to be someone newer, cooler and younger to replace whatever “fame” you’ve built up in the short run. And no decision to put fame or success above your friends, colleagues and content will ever pay out in the long run. What lasts is quality content, a readership that believes you’re in this because you love what you do, and the friends and colleagues who respect the work you’re doing.
*Younger women, as content producers and business owners, need to take greater control over how we are presented and how we present ourselves
One of the reasons I started the Biz Ladies series was because I was shocked as how poorly I was treated as a young woman running a business and by how little many of us knew about being business and media savvy. And this article was a perfect example. So many of the lines that these women gave sounded incredibly snarky, rude or conceited that my initial reaction was, “Oh no, they probably just said these in an off the cuff and slightly sarcastic way”. It was hard to read. Did they mean those flip remarks with malice? Possibly. But I really don’t think they were thinking about it that way when they were talking. I’ve met just about all of these women before and the vast majority of them are friendly and genuine.
It can be obnoxious to constantly be compared to someone else in your field, especially if you see what you do as so much different to them. And that frustration came through in Michelle’s pull-quotes. But I had a hard time reading them and not thinking “Nooo, don’t say these things to a reporter!”
I’ve had my words twisted and used out of context in interviews so often that I finally sat down and made a list of things I wouldn’t discuss in interviews or reminders of interviewers I couldn’t trust. So often the writer will seem friendly in person but will end up looking for the most exciting, juicy story possible. And if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. So these small comments, which may or may not have been meant with ulterior motives, helped the writer craft a story that turned a group of bright, talented women into something that felt more like catty reality show personalities.
This is especially difficult as women, because it seems as though so many male writers feel the need to frame women (especially those at the top of their field) in this way. Is it frustrating? Yes. But I feel strongly that there are things women can to do educate themselves and prevent situations like this from happening.
I’ve been struggling with this issue myself lately as I work on larger projects that involve people need to sort of “package” me as a brand (which is incredibly uncomfortable) and decide what image goes best with that. It lead to me feeling really angry and frustrated and I found myself returning to books about the Riot Grrrl movement and how women banded together then to discuss how they were portrayed publicly and how they could take more control of that. I learned a lot from revisiting those ideals and methods and have carried some of it back to work with me that I’ll talk about below.
I think the first and best way to deal with this is to go into interviews knowing that the goal of almost any publication is to write an interesting story. And no matter how wonderful your product is, it’s always more interesting to have a juicy personal story to go with it. So if writers sense some discord on your team or in your community, they’re apt to pick at it. Nothing is ever really off the record (I learned that the hard way) and sarcasm almost always reads as rude in print. So how do you deal with being honest with a reporter without losing out on a story?
The way I’ve watched others do this is to simply focus on what makes you and your work great. You have to be your own story and believe in what you do in a way that is interesting to others. And believe me, true passion for a topic is interesting enough for most stories. Don’t worry about other people’s work and the issues you may or may not have with it. The bottom line is no one wants to hear a brand complain about another one. It may feel good to let it out or sound funny to readers in the short term, but it’s the fastest way to push yourself into that cliche persona of “catty woman cutting down other women”.
I don’t know about most of you, but I’m pretty sure none of us worked hard to get where we are to have it diminished in a second by an off-hand comment. So I hope that all of us working online will pay more attention to what we say, how we say it and who we choose to speak with and trust with our grievances. We all have to vent somewhere, but the safest place to do that is with people at home you trust.
Everyone is trying so hard right now to nail down the future of design publications. Will print survive? Will blogs? Will online magazines? I think it’s way too early to tell. The oldest of the online magazines will turn two this Fall (Lonny) and I don’t think that’s enough time to give any medium to mature and grow into its best form.
That said, as a rabid consumer of information in many forms, I think iPads provide the most promising future for what we think of as the traditional “magazine”. In a world where printing on paper becomes increasingly expensive and environmentally questionable, the iPad lets us hold on to the idea of having something physically in our hands that we can flip through with a finger. I think the Issuu platform is flawed in its usability. I almost always yell in frustration because I have to resize one page three different times to read main body text, see a full image and zoom in to see a photo caption. To me that current format of flippable PDF magazines online feels like trying to force print into a web world. Where iPad magazine formats seem to be a more seamless blend of both worlds.
So if I had to throw my hat into a ring now, in June of 2011 and make a bet, I’d say we’ll see these publications (and many, many others) turn to the iPad (or other similar, and less expensive, e-readers) for the modern “magazine”. For now I love the freedom that blogging software gives me, but I’d love to see some of the talented people in our field embrace these platforms and push them further to see what creative things you can do with them. There’s so much talent and promise in this community and I know they’ve got something bigger, better and more original just waiting to find the right outlet.
UPDATE: I’m working with a journalist to post a special Biz Ladies post this coming Tuesday about positive media training for young women running businesses. Stay tuned for some helpful tips….