Saturday, June 30, 2012

What closing a magazine tells you about why you had to close a magazine

We had to close The Word yesterday. We'd told the team the day before. All that remained was to announce it to the readers, advertisers and other interested parties.

Not long ago this would have meant a call to Media Guardian. There would have been some bargaining over exclusivity. A press release would have been sent. There would have been a tense wait to see whether the story was treated sympathetically or shoehorned into a larger narrative. Then you would hope that your readers and interested parties happened to read Media Guardian.

This is what actually happened. Before I went to the office I posted a statement explaining the closure on the Word website. Then I tweeted saying that the magazine was closing in both mine and the magazine's account. This linked to my statement.

By the time I got to work forty minutes later the story was everywhere. The Word site had fallen over twice through weight of traffic. People I hadn't seen for years were in touch. Slower ones were told about it by relatives in China. Media Guardian were on the phone, chasing after the conversation that they once would have started.

People love a funeral and in the digital age they don't even have to dress for it. This funeral was even more attractive because the deceased was there to hear what was said about them. The words of tribute were kindly meant but sometimes over the top. A surprising number of them were laced with anger. Surely somebody must be to blame for this. Somebody suggested getting up a petition, which made me wonder who they would present it to. Others seemed to hint at a wider tragedy about the decline and fall of so-called intelligent debate. Speaking as one who's played that card occasionally when in a tight spot this kind of forehead-smiting, woe-is-us reaction is, to use the adjective of our times, "inappropriate".

Here's what I learned yesterday. The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event in which people could happily participate and the "disintermediation", to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did.

Even the most established and successful ones are having to go about it in a different way. The boss of Hearst Magazines in the United States said recently that all magazines needed to have five revenue streams. They used to have two. It was hard enough to get those.

The organs of the media once sat athwart the roads down which information travelled, charging readers a premium for access to information they couldn't get elsewhere, and advertisers for access to readers they couldn't identify any more precisely.

That doesn't apply anymore. Both readers and advertisers have got hundreds of choices and they use them, which is fine. I don't yearn for the old days. I think the new wide open media world is more interesting and fun than the old one. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see any media enterprise - from massive household name newspaper brands to tiny ones like The Word - shut their doors tomorrow. I wouldn't bat an eyelid.


  1. David,
    As a reader, and subsequently subscriber, since issue 4, I was extremely sorry to hear the news. I understand that the media environment has changed enormously, but is there any one thing that dealt the death blow? Declining circulation, advertising revenue? Or just an accumulation of smaller things?

  2. if both of those things are not massive in themselves!! Er, I think the answer to your question lays in the blog Huw...

  3. I wish you and all the staff/freelancers who worked on the magazine all the best for the future, David.

    However, I cancelled my subscription a couple of years ago: I work from home and don't have a commute. I'm also a keen viewer of TV drama box-sets. And, I have a young son. All this means that I could only read something in snatches of about 15 to 20 minutes.
    The 'The Word' that I knew when it first launched operated along the lines of most other music mags. But, the 'The Word' that I gave up on two years ago seemed to over-indulge its writers: pretty much every article - no matter how good it was - took way over my 20-minute limit to read.
    In The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum's character - a journalist - said the one editorial rule at his paper was that you should never write anything that would take the average reader longer than the time it takes to have a crap to read.
    "You can read Dostoevsky in the can," a friend retorts. "Yes," says Goldblum, "but they can't finish it."

  4. Can I say before it's too late that the animated covers were excellent.

  5. Sorry to hear that, such a shame. I hope it continues in other forms though, I'm sure it will.

  6. I agree these are difficult times with the infinite specialisation of media channels, be it TV or print.

    You say that some of the comments after your announcement were over the top. The overwhelming theme was that the Word was unique, loved and will be missed. The fact that these qualities were still not enough to make it a viable proposition speaks volumes.

    For what it's worth, thanks for trying to do something different and making it work for 9 years.

    I look forward to your next venture...

  7. I hope you felt a bit of love and affection as well as anger, David. 'Word' was great work, and I hope the team find other channels through which to entertain and inform us soon. Very best,
    Bob Machin

  8. Thank your for a consistently good read over the past nine years. Others have said that it felt as if you were writing for them. Their praise is not OTT, it's genuine. Within the eclectic mix you served up each month, your radar focused on issues that no-one else seemed to cover. What other music mag would've interviewed Leslie Phillips or followed Jarvis Cocker, KT Tunstall et al. on an environmental expedition? For me The Word was Smash Hits for grown-ups. It had a unique voice and it's a crying shame that the changing media landscape has now silenced that voice. Thank you very much.

  9. a very sad day for all concerned, the last decent music magazine in the uk bows its head...

    all the very best for the future david, and thanks.

    a reader

  10. The anger or inappropriateness of some comments is understandable when you're in the fortunate position of having a media outlet to which users feel a genuine emotional attachment.

    Maybe part of the anger derives from the knowledge that there's any number of "Cheat" mags out there which, with their low standards and dubious ethics, attract healthily large readerships. But the market has deemed that Word is too much of a niche apparently.

    Very sad news, and I sincerely hope you and your colleagues find well-earned rewarding employment very soon.

  11. Such a shame. I've been a subscriber since the start and have enjoyed every issue. The Word was intelligent, thought provoking, amusing and just a damn good read, month in, month out.

    I wish you and everyone involved in The Word the best of luck in any future ventures.

  12. It's a shame it's come to this, David. I don't know much about the in's and out's of publishing or writing, but I know a bit about reading, and you folks did a wonderful job.

    Also worth pointing out is that the sense of community that built up, encouraged by all *at* The Word is something that I would have difficulty in believing could occur again elsewhere.

    Best of luck to you and your colleagues in the future, and I look forward to the next chapter.

  13. Wishing yourself and all your colleagues all the best for the future in whatever you do David. I have really enjoyed reading The Word Magazine and being part of The Massive. Thank you.

  14. Having done all the development on a super iPad app, what's to stop DH harnessing the Word's existing subscriber base to go digital, subscription-only? Having cut out the printers', distributors', and newsagents' share, The Word could go forward with just a great editor working in tandem with an IT genius.

  15. A few people have said that, Martin. The problem is that there is no neat transition from one medium to another. The majority of Word subscribers are not iPad users (although quite a few are) and even without the printers and distributors you would still have your main costs, which are connected with the editorial. Everybody in the business is still learning about this stuff but I recently talked to somebody in a senior position at a magazine publisher who are far more advanced than us on this front and he said he couldn't envisage a position where an iPad-only magazine of any kind could survive without a paper title doing the heavy lifting. The thing about new media is it provides you with lots of new ways to spread your effort but often doesn't offer a payback which justifies that effort. It's all fun to do and it's easy to persuade yourself that it will have a transformational effect. But so far it hasn't. Not for any publisher I know.

  16. Lots of people liked The Word because not only was the magazine a very good read, but it also helped to create and encourage a community of bloggers and listeners via The Word's podcast and blogs.

    The podcasts were particularly good and included nostalgic musings about music, people, changes in society, life and living. Guests popped in to chat and sometimes we got a bit of music too.

    The blog is one of the most civilised and interesting blogs around. Bloggers went further, breaking out of their online world to to arrange meetings (Mingles) to get to know each other. Drinks were bought, stories were told and friendships sprung forth. Staff from the magazine attended and joined in. You can't underestimate the genuine pleasure of meeting people who have interviewed some of the musical greats or hosted a programme like 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', but who also exchanged fascinating insights into the entertainment world. Bloggers supplied reviews of albums and gigs that sometimes appeared in the magazine. The World also laid on a series of gigs for their readers.

    All this has served to personalise how people regard the magazine and those involved with it. It has created a deep loyalty within certain people because they now regard The Word as part of their lives - it has brought them new friends, it has entertained them, it has added pleasure to what started out as a subscription to a printed mag.

    It sounds as if more subscriptions were needed to make the mag a viable business enterprise. The blog featured people who lost their jobs, found new jobs, or were still looking. Clearly these straightened times have led to many cancelled subscriptions or less money to spend on entertainment. The Word business model seems not to have kept pace with the changing times, but the magazine did not lose its quality or its ability to fascinate, which makes its demise all the harder to take. It certainly worked for the punters, but not to the extent that they all subscribed.

    I was sitting reading The Word at home when my wife turned to me to tell me that it was closing. She was reading the BBC News on her iPad. It struck me that maybe the iPad will contribute to the demise of paper magazines and that we will only have electronic mags in future. I don't mind that, as long as they are in the same league as The Word.

    A quick "Thank You" to all at The Word and to you Mr H. We'll wait to see what you're on about next.

  17. This paragraph is highly significant:

    "Here's what I learned yesterday. The speed with which this item of news spread and became a news event in which people could happily participate and the "disintermediation", to use a jargon word, of the traditional news outlets was a live demonstration of the same forces which mean you can't publish magazines, or indeed anything, the way you once did. "

    This is exactly how I have been thinking recently. The world has undergone a transformative shift with the coming of age of the internet, and the new generations of devices that bring it to you everywhere, anytime. My hunch is that if some altruistic soul were to offer a donation of £1 million to keep the magazine going, it would not help stem the tide. Pretty soon more money would be needed. People's attention is elsewhere & priorities, and loyalties, have changed.

    When I see queues of people outside Apple stores on the launch of the latest gizmo, in the past I wondered what that was all about, despite working in that same industry for 25 years. Finally, I got it - Apple is, in some senses, a replacement for the "rock" brands of times past, like Pink Floyd. Allegiance too a cause still exists but it's different now. Similarly, people care more about the types of headphones than the music being listened to (Dr. Dre was very smart in that respect).

    Where am I going with this? Well, I think that we can't go back. David's response above may raise a few hackles but he's right.

  18. I think that many people, myself included, are genuinely sad. Partly because we like the magazine and blog and will miss them. Partly because we empathise with those who produced them. And partly because we must now face the truth that the things that interest us - music, film, books and intelligent comment thereon - are now such a minority interest that they cannot sustain a monthly magazine.

  19. Kevin, the things that interest you have never been *less* of a minority interest than they are now. There's such a massive interest in them that you can pursue that interest 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in thousands of different directions. In the old days the only place you found out about them was in a magazine. That's no longer the case.

  20. I honestly believe that the majority of the world in which we live in now want certain elements of it for free. Music and all it's environs is the top target for this disgusting behaviour. I agree that technology and digital advancement has played a big part in the demise of 'The Word' but only in highlighting to the gobshite lazy masses how easy it is to take, take , take culminating in the comment above about cancelling a subscription because articles began to go on longer than a shit..!!?? Dear God how fucked are we..? It's sad to see talent of any kind bow out because of lethargy and greed. LONG LIVE THE WORD. XX

  21. David, perhaps I can try expressing it a bit better. You're right - there is a lot out there. But people are less willing to pay for it and its not valued in the way it once was. Apart from anything else, the sheer volume makes it difficult to take in or appreciate; I have Spotify but what do I want to listen to? It's like having a car without a map. The Word was, amongst other things, a fantastic curator. I will honestly miss it.

  22. It's interesting to read your blog, David. I feel truly saddened by the closure of The Word - for all the reasons cited by people I worked with and enjoyed the company of at The Word as well as so many reader. But, if I'm honest, I am also bereft because I love print publishing maybe as much as I love music. Alongside the tapes, records and CDs, the magazines I've enjoyed are landmarks in my life from Jackie to Marie Claire; Smash Hits, NME, Heat and The Word.
    It's about feeling part of something and having something tangible to show for it. Just as I miss holding an album sleeve and checking out all the credits and musing over the artwork and lyrics while listening to each track, I'm going to miss flicking back and forwards through a magazine, appreciating the design, the colours, the photos, fonts and layout every bit as much as reading the content. Having different tabs open on a browser doesn't hold the same pleasure for me as opening a magazine from 1979 and comparing it side by side with one from 1989.
    The Word and Private Eye are the only magazines we've subscribed to for any length of time in our house and the news that one of them is closing is sad. It marks the end of an era. And I don't think by saying that, that I'm being oversentimental. It's true.
    Yes, I'll get over it of course. And I'll find other resources and grow to trust other arbiters of taste. But I don't feel foolish for feeling so grief-stricken at the news that The Word is closing. If you - so quick to embrace new technologies - and Mark - the editor's editor - couldn't keep a brilliant, well-loved magazine going against the odds, then to me that says quite clearly that independent print publishing is not long for this world.
    I'm trying to think about the perceived threat that the internet has on print publishing in the same way as the threat that television once held for radio and cinema. Perhaps it's naive, but I'm telling myself it's just another a phase in the history of how we choose to consume information and entertainment. I'm hoping that somewhere in the future, print publishing will find its own niche (and I'm pretty sure it will be niche!) alongside the iPad and Kindles.
    But for the time being at least, I'm still in mourning.

  23. Hi Dave. Thanks for giving such a frank and honest response, and I promise I won't bug your ass about this forever.

    As I've written on the Word blog, every former subscriber I've spoken to says they would pay for a digital Word.

    On the question of editorial costs, it might adopt a similar model to Sabotage Times (web contributors are unpaid but the editors try - with some success - to syndicate their work to the mainstream papers).

    My hunch is that some Word-quality writers would be willing to work on that basis, at least in the short term. Then to get around picture costs, only press shots would be used - no photo agency costs.

    On your other point, that all the publishers you know believe that an iPad edition can only survive alongside a print product, could the best of these web submissions be fashioned into a Word Quarterly as a way of driving interest in subscriptions?

    Don't get me wrong: I believe that all writers should be paid for their content. But as a way of preserving the spirit of The Word, all this model would seem to require is a great editor, an IT genius and an administrator to attempt the syndications.

    You might not think that it's a goer - it's your business after all - but would you perhaps allow a small team to attempt it under licence from Development Hell?

  24. Martin, I don't wish to dampen anyone's enthusiasm but I think people underestimate just how expensive even the cheap way can be. We pay £5,000 per annum for web hosting alone. That's a cost you've got to cover before you've even thought about paying any staff.

  25. Hmm, sadly that's not dampened my enthusiam at all! Trouble is I've got a job. But if you're not against the idea in principle it might encourage some likeminded souls to take up the challenge.

  26. As a recently renewed subscriber, huge thanks and appreciation to you and to everyone at The Word. The broad spread of content brought all sorts of music, film, books and so on into my world, & I usually enjoyed the range of opinions expressed too.

    Having spent the last 10+ years on the other side of the fence printing these titles, I'm not optimistic about the future for the volume end of print & publishing either. Print was "the" channel, now it's "a" channel. As Anj says, things look to be going niche, and revenues are much more fragmented.

    I suspect that the big publishers are having just as hard a time as the independents though - while they have greater resources by dint of being larger, they also have legacy cost bases (big central offices, huge permanent staff, bureaucracies) built up in the good times.

    I'm sure you're thoroughly fed up with being offered advice from all quarters, particularly right now, & you have the experience of having been there and seen first hand the challenges with this title, which we haven't. What's going on though is that the community around The Word want to see something come through in some form. None of us know the details, & trying hard not to offer advice (but!) niche typically works only if (fixed) costs can be skewered to the floor. This is much more achievable now. Outsource everything, no print version (or do one print-on-demand with a low frequency), avoid office space, etc etc. We really really want to see this go on, somehow.

    And finally - might be worth having a good ol' look at those hosting cost for starters. Seems pricey.

    Whatever, thanks and good luck.

  27. Fraser's just sent me the stats on the sources that drove people to the Word site on Friday when the closure was announced.

    Twitter and Facebook were way out in front - the rest, including minnows like the BBC and Google, nowhere at all.

  28. That's not a surprise is it, David? You tweeted it to people who are actively interested in your work, and it was trending among groups of readers on Facebook all day. I know I've been banging on about it, but if you look at how the eds of Sabotage Times announce new content on Facebook and Twitter (and at relevant times of the day, too), that's how you get stuff read. And you already have an elegant app and a bereft base of paying subscribers …

  29. Could I just add that I very much enjoyed your employment of the word 'athwart' there?

  30. I just wanted to add my thanks to David and everyone at the Word for all the insightful and informative pieces you've written over the years. As a long time reader, never minding paying the full price rather than bothering to subscribe, it hit me in the guts yesterday when I heard about the closure.

    Like someone above I think print will end up like Vinyl in years to come, revived and treasured by a dwindling group of us. My partner looks threatening at my pile of back issues, but I’ll never throw them out (I once had a big collection of 1970s NMEs which I lost in the same way to much, much regret).

    What no one’s mentioned is the excellent music you supplied via your free cds – always eclectic I was always genuinely excited when I put the “needle on the record” for the first time. Much better than the dreadful reworking of “classic” albums you find other mags putting out.

    I did always grit my teeth when I saw there was an iPhone app but no Android one, but I’m sure you’d have gotten around to it if time had permitted. Let’s hope they’ll be an online way to continue to bring us the perceptive and astute writing you’ve specialised in. Maybe an annual publication – anyone remember Rock File?

    Anyway, my heartfelt thanks to you all and hopefully you’ll all keep on keeping on and a phoenix will rise from the embers.

  31. Re: Digital-only Word.

    Five thousand subscribers at £30 a year equals £150,000 gross. Take out Apple's share (up to 30%) or later whatever Google ends up charging, and you've got £105,000. As you've said, hosting is £5,000, then you pay an editor, an administrator and a techie £33,000 a year.

    All three could be part-time posts: the editor could work at home - say Chiswick - the others could share spare capacity at Development Hell.

    All content comes from the Massive and friends of the Word. The best of it goes in the app, with the admin working hard to syndicate to the mainstream print media.

    By my reckoning that still leaves £1,000 for a piss-up at Christmas.

    All other profits to be shared equally among contributors and the three staff.

    Word saved, podcasts preserved, a fractious Massive sated and a 6Music-style good news story to raise awareness for Word 2.0.

  32. Rather late to the funeral, I'm afraid. Just to add my thanks for a superb site, blog and "something for the weekend" newsletter. The Word blog was the only place I ever found on the Net where I could literally ask ANY question and not be treated like a moron or insulted by anonymous dickheads. There was something incredibly special about the people on that website, David. Anyway, a huge thank you, and best of luck with your future ventures.

  33. I guess it's just me...but I was a little bit disheartened by your very last line..."I wouldn't bat an eye-lid". I don't think I speak just for myself, judging by the hundreds of heartfelt comments on the Word Blog, and from speaking to people at last Friday's meet-up, that there are a fair few people who indeed have "batted their eye-lids" at the closing of The Word magazine. Of course I fully understand that this wonderful community spirit that has developed around the Word, and all the good will in the world cannot possibly save a business but please don't underestimate the positive effect that The Word has had on many of its' readers.

  34. When I said I wouldn't bat an eyelid what I meant was I wouldn't be remotely surprised. This may not have been the best choice of words.

  35. Just wanted to add my own heartfelt thanks for a great magazine. Through the happy arrival of two kids and subsequent reduction in time I had to indulge in culture The Word kept me in touch, and awake on tube journeys and long haul flights alike.
    It's not like 'a death in the family' but there is a sense of loss - perhaps of a family pet? More upsetting than the passing of a goldfish, but not quite a dog?
    We subscribers have been offered offered a refund or replacement - it's unlikely that anything can exactly replace the Word shaped hole in our everyday lives. And i would prefer you to keep my refund and buy yourself a pint - i owe you one.

  36. Not into Twitter of Facebook or even part of the massive, I didn't find out until Monday evening and found my favourite magazine waiting for me on the bottom stair... I know its not like a death in the family but I do truly feel a loss. I've no idea if, now that your blog has moved on, you will ever read this David but a heart felt thank you to you and Mark and all.

  37. Only found out myself, gutted.
    I can't quite believe that thought it got too involved - the latest Word has always had pole position in my short drop !

    Best wishes to you all, and I can't believe that there isn't money to be made out of time-poor, cash-rich, music lovers like myself.

    In tribute, I am off to listen to Headless Heroes, just one discovery that I would never have made without the friendly nudge from Word.

    I look forward to your and Ellen's next venture.